“Chimerica” by Lucy Kirkwood

at the Almeida Theatre, Saturday 15th June 2013

The latecomers policy at the Almeida is brilliant, for both latecomers and audience alike. Rather than shove you in at a random point and disturb everyone else, you’re given a sheet of paper the moment you walk in the door and plonked in front of a TV screen which relays what’s happening in the theatre. The paper briefs you on what has happened before you will enter the theatre so that you’re up to speed before being snuck in round the back. I was late – unavoidably, due to our joyous transport system – to Chimerica, but upon entering I was pretty up to speed with what was going on. It did mean, however, that I missed that opening image and was, like the figures in the play, given a symbol of the thing rather than the thing itself.

For the thing which strikes me most about Chimerica is precisely that: its use of symbols. Which, in a way akin to Mad Men, send us down all sort of tracks for consideration and possible outcomes. Considering the whole play stems from the idea that there’s a story behind the infamous Tiananmen Square photo taken in 1989, the rest of the play is built on the idea that images can mean everything, something and nothing simultaneously. Thus we see a floating red orbs, an unseen ghost and a load of plastic bags.

And though Joe Schofield (Stephen Cambell Moore, playing the man behind the photograph who attempts to discover Tank Man throughout the course of the play) hates it when people comment on the fact that his subject is holding plastic bags rather than the fact he’s a “hero”, it is these objects which act as our way in. For it’s not brands or screens or cash or lights which act as a symbol for hypercapitalism but bags. Plastic bags. Those things which we willingly take wherever we go, which we use to hold our purchases and which we reuse for carrying our own possessions elsewhere. As the second half of the show draws on, more and more bags are brought on stage, in the midst of public protests and in the privacy of home.

And, crucially, they are no different in China than in America. As both countries thrive on excess and antagonise one another with people in power who only serve their own citizens without thinking of wider global implications, the humble but damaging plastic bag remains constant. For all their market research and Chinese-ification of various American companies discussed in Tessa’s (Claudie Blakley) presentation, bags don’t change, carrying with them all the baggage of capitalism wherever they go.

I see the play itself, however, as less of a consideration of the relationship between China and America and more as a look at politics and the media at large which, like China and America, feed each other with their antagonism. How, though the media pretends to be holding those in power accountable, it really serves to perpetuate and support current structures of control, creating narratives and stories just like the political classes. The infamous Tank Man photo, for example, is used by many of the play’s characters to make a point of their own, either in support of or opposition to current trends. That act of defiance (or, indeed, of chance as Kirkwood suggests) can be used to bolster dozens of arguments.

And then, finally, it’s used as art in Schofield’s exhibition of his work. We see a handful of photographs of what could generally be termed “political” material, here presented in a gallery. When can the work the media creates be considered art? If we accept this as art, then can we suggest that political speeches are also, seeing as they do the same job of creating narratives through use of the imagination?

Alongside all this is a strand focussing on Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), a friend of Joe living in China and struggling to make the ‘truth’ known about the Party’s control of the national consciousness. On American websites, he reads the “truth” about the smog in Beijing only to be told by the authorities that it is US agencies who make up the truth, not the Chinese government; the fact that we are uneasy about the idea that the West may be telling lies goes some way to proving Kirkwood’s point. And through flashbacks we slowly come to understand his motives for this struggle and his personal connection with the infamous photo, which he forces us to look at afresh (who is Tank Man? The man with the bags? Or the man in the tank?), thus crossing histories and memories until the two become mingled and inseparable.

In the author’s note, Kirkwood says that beyond the existence of the Tank Man photo(s), “everything [else] that transpires in the play is an imaginative leap”. The fact that I didn’t read this until after the watching the production and thus spent the entirety of its duration wondering to what extent the events were true is testament to Kirkwood’s skill as a dramatist. She, like her subjects, is creating an entire sprawling, complex, believable narrative from one single photo.

I realise that I’ve only spoken about the play so far and have barely mentioned Lyndsey Turner’s dazzling, clear production, which presents the text with a deftness and simplicity without taking away from its extraordinary complexity, but that’s probably down to the sheer scope of the text, which never shies away from being ambitious and raises a multitude of questions just on its own.

But yes, the production. What’s so perfect about it is the way in which Headlong’s trademark style enmeshes with the ambition of the text. The thing I’ve always admired about Headlong shows is their courage in not shying away from a slightly rough aesthetic, where we can see the seams and the workings of the set (see: DecadeEarthquakes in London). Naturally, this is born slightly out of necessity in putting these vast, far-reaching plays on stage, but it also seems to be making a clear point about a synthetic and a presentational environment which, when placed alongside the montage style, creates a sort of postmodern Brechtianism.

Es Devlin’s revolving cube design (reminiscent, as mentioned elsewhere, of Tom Scutt’s work on 13) is in thrall to this idea, containing within it three sets behind sliding walls which act as a multitude of locations, but which also create an eerie quality when simply lit from within (Tim Lutkin), as we peep behind the translucent screens to see ambiguous, anonymous bodies lost in history. Because sets have to be changed quickly as the set turns, we here encounter the roughness and DIY quality, as they never seem to be quite finished, instead acting merely as signifiers for a larger, more detailed world and in the process constantly reminding us that what we are watching is theatrical construction.

Then, in the set changes, we get projections from Finn Ross which both transport us across the globe and strengthen the points made about media manipulation and truth, as each is peppered with red lines and arrows used by photo editors to help them tell their stories. And Carolyn Downing’s buzzing soundtrack ensures the action is relentless.

The ensemble adds to this presentationalism, with (I think) all but three actors playing multiple roles and each clearly ‘performing’ without ever failing to be ‘truthful’. The trio at the heart of the play – Cambell Moore, Blakley and Wong – all go on clear, defined emotional journeys and each have extraordinary moments of emotional excess towards the end of the piece. Blakley also has a brilliant knack for making the rich starkness of Kirkwood’s language (“skipping down Broadway like some fucking cunt from a musical”, “congratulations. On your… tenacious… semen”) feel completely natural.

What Chimerica ultimately does is invite us to consider different ways of looking in an image-based information age which tries to structure narratives for us instead of allowing us to structure them ourselves. Though the China/America debate is present and allows the play to have contemporary resonance with its critique of hypercapitalism, it acts more as a background to the far more expansive issue of the media’s role in political life and vice versa. Like the themes discussed and the two eponymous countries, Kirkwood’s play and Turner’s production work both with and against each other to further shed light on these questions, acting as symbols themselves for a far bigger picture which has been clipped at the edges, so that what exists beyond the borders is always just out of reach.

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