In 1989, in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests, a man stepped in front of the tanks rolling through Beijing. The infamous photo of the man carrying his shopping bags has provided playwright Lucy Kirkwood with the starting point for this brand new, three-hour-long political drama.
It is made clear in the programme that the play is an “imaginative leap”, but it is gripping in its content, following newspaper photographer Joe Schofield as he tries to hunt down ‘tank man’ 23 years after he took the photo. The play is mainly set in New York in 2012 in the midst of the presidential elections, which is tarnished by a full-scale debate over cheap labour and the outsourcing of American jobs to Chinese factories. While following the elections Joe finds a cryptic message hidden in a newspaper, which takes him on various leads to discover what happened to ‘tank man’, but he finds that he has to sacrifice relationships with his friends, boss, girlfriend and professional contacts along the way. I don’t want to give much more away, because the plot’s twists and turns gives the play its edge and intensity, but Kirkwood’s script has been beautifully crafted for the stage at the Almeida by director Lyndsey Turner.
Co-produced by the Almeida Theatre and Headlong Theatre Company, the play is a startling inspection of two of the countries whose fortunes fuel the world, but also, on a smaller scale, it is the personal account of a man on a mission. The set design by Es Devlin is one of the best I have seen in theatre: a revolving white cube with projections of film strips, enlarged to provide the background settings of apartments, strip clubs, florists, aeroplanes and New York street scenes. It also features a booming soundtrack between scene changes, making it a slick, seamless production. You might think at three hours long it could become slightly tedious, but the short, sharp scenes and brilliant acting makes the play fly by.
Stephen Campbell Moore (best known for his Irwin in The History Boys) provides us with the likeable and determined Joe, taking the audience on every step of his journey with him. Claudie Blakley and Trevor Cooper provide the witty characters of Tessa and Frank respectively, adding humour to Joe’s life and to the politically-charged storyline. Benedict Wong (who seems to rule the market on interrogation scenes, following his role as Ai Weiwei at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year) provides one of the most harrowing performances of the evening, the sensitive issues being played out beautifully, yet still giving us a character with great heart. This play is brilliantly written, staged, designed and acted and I fail to see how anyone could walk away from it not feeling even a little bit affected. If you can get your hands on a ticket, make sure you go and devour the absolute genius that is Chimerica.
Chimerica is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 6 July. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website.
Photography by Johan Persson.