The photograph has always been something of a paradox; a record of ephemerality, the fleeting present moment arrested for posterity. It is a document of disappearance, the deceptive capture of something already lost, a lie and an irrefutable truth wrapped up in one. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger even suggests that the invention of the camera irrevocably altered our mode of perception, therefore changing the status of the image itself: “the camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless”. Yet still we cling to photographs as incontrovertible vestiges of the past, investing one image with the weight of an entire event – an entire ideology, even.
In Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood fixes her lens on just one of these historically burdened snapshots. In fact, that’s already a lie; there are at least six known versions of the iconic image that provides Kirkwood’s inspiration, implicitly refuting its uniqueness and by extension the irreproachable “truth” it is assumed to offer. The photographic catalyst for Kirkwood’s play is the ubiquitous visual encapsulation of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre by the Chinese military: the image of a man standing defiantly and defencelessly in front of a line of advancing tanks. It’s become one of the most hauntingly familiar images of the twentieth century, a symbol of non-violent protest and of the chilling opposition between the fragility of man and the might of machinery.
Around this one recorded act of heroism and the enduring mystery of the anonymous “Tank Man”, Kirkwood has crafted a taut, complex and nuanced thriller, with exhilaratingly ambitious scope. Her imagined American photojournalist, Joe, is fixated on this unknown icon of defiance who he photographed 23 years ago from the window of his Beijing hotel room. Spurred on by hints from his Chinese friend Zhang Lin and a cryptic clue in a Beijing newspaper, the quest to discover this man and the story behind the photograph quickly takes on the character of an obsession. It’s a detective story, of sorts, but set against the backdrop of a nation developing at frightening, breakneck speed. As one character puts it, this is a country that has gone from famine to Slimfast in the space of one generation.
If the glorious mess of Three Kingdoms queasily exposed the British view of Europe as Other, then Chimerica goes a long way towards skewering the hypocritically exoticising Western view of China. Although the title (borrowed from Niall Ferguson’s study of the economic dominance of this pair of superpowers) might inextricably link China and the USA, the play itself repeatedly demonstrates that we equate the citizens of these two nations at our peril. While consumer insight consultant Tessa highlights the pitfalls of treating Chinese shoppers like their counterparts in the West, Americans bemoan the Westernisation of Chinese culture in the same breath with which they sigh relief that the Chinese are becoming more like their capitalist cousins. They want authentic Chinese cuisine, but only if there’s a credit card machine at the till and a Starbucks round the corner.
The idea of the photograph, beyond providing the plot’s primary impetus, also reflects these strained perceptions that nations cultivate of one another. It’s all about how we see things. This currency of images decorates Es Devlin’s exquisite set, a revolving cube that recalls Tom Scutt’s brilliant design for 13 at the National Theatre and conjures similar ideas of being boxed in – by a restrictive state, by the photographic ghosts of history, by a consumer culture that would slot individuals into neat, easily targeted pigeon-holes. The surfaces of this cube become screens for various projected photographs, creating a constantly shifting backdrop of visual truths, lies and suggestions. These ever-present images also hint at the pervasive infiltration of visual media into our homes and lives, creating a world in which, as Joe cynically puts it, photographs of atrocity are no more than “clip art”.
For all its richly layered interrogation of economics, politics and the culture of images, the play remains motored throughout by a constantly engaging narrative. In his dogged mission to track down “Tank Man”, Joe increasingly jeopardises his job, his friendships and his burgeoning relationship with Tessa, yet somehow his obsessive investigation remains unfailingly compelling. This is largely down to the riveting precision of Lydnsey Turner’s tight production and the absorbing performance of Stephen Campbell Moore, who preserves a shred of empathy for Joe even at his most self-centredly illogical. His argument that “people need to know there’s heroism in the world” is an appealing one, but as journalistic curiosity morphs into unhealthy fixation, Joe’s pursuit is one of a strange kind of personal redemption rather than any real public interest.
As Joe races across New York and racks up his long distance phone bill on the trail of “Tank Man”, his disillusioned friend Zhang Lin, played with compassion and poignant weariness by Benedict Wong, faces mounting difficulties in Beijing. Alongside the central pairing of these two men, Kirkwood and Turner build a sophisticated cast of supporting figures, often achieving vivid characterisations in just a few quick strokes. Claudie Blakley’s blunt, businesslike Tessa has an edge of vulnerability and a nagging but never simplified social conscience, while Joe’s newspaper colleagues resist being wrestled into generic boxes. The evidence of the play itself would seem to counter Tessa’s glib assertion that in the age of mass communication and sophisticated consumer profiling there’s “no such thing as an individual”.
While focus is inevitably drawn to the impressive scope of Kirkwood’s writing, it’s equally hard to deny the visual beauty of Turner’s sleekly revolving production, bringing more excitement to the stage of the Almeida than it has witnessed in years. The staging is striking in a cinematic rather than a visceral sense, however, placed at an elegant remove from the audience. With its rapid succession of often short scenes and its gripping thriller plot, it is easy to see Chimerica working on screen, a medium that this production already seems to have at the back of its mind. If early whispers of a future life are realised – as they deserve to be – it would come as no surprise if a film adaptation is not far behind.
Resisting the cinematic vocabulary of the whole, the production’s one sharp injection of thrilling theatricality comes courtesy of a ghost from the Tiananmen Square massacre. Puncturing the realism of the scene, this figure unfurls from Zhang Lin’s fridge in a way that immediately brings to mind the performer springing from a suitcase in Three Kingdoms, providing a similarly startling physical interruption. At the close of the first act, this fragile, bloodied form bears a glowing red orb, passing the pulsing sphere from performer to performer in a sequence of captivating yet ominous beauty. This lingering moment recalls the poisoned apple of fairytale – a sinister metaphor, perhaps, for a deadly political fruit that Chimerica suggests is just waiting to be bitten into.