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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CHIMERICA
at Almeida Theatre

A THOUSAND WORDS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Andrew Leung and Elizabeth Chan/ Ph: Johan Persson

This could be the shape of things to come at the Almeida. Lucy Kirkwood's ambitious and long, but not over-long, exploration of the West's relationship with China is staged with the kind of bravura that audiences have come to expect from Headlong.

This is a theatre company that under the direction of Rupert Goold produced such dynamic shows as Enron, Earthquakes in London and The Effect. And since Goold is going to take over from Michael Attenborough at the Almeida in August, we can probably expect more of the same. Chimerica however, is directed by Lindsey Turner, who deploys every Goold-esque attention-grabbing technique there is. That's a compliment, by the way. The filmic action vaults from Beijing to New York, from claustrophobic interiors to bustling streets with the aid of a revolving, infinitely adaptable white square designed by Es Devlin and onto which video designer Finn Ross projects not just the locations but the show's motif. 

This is one of the most memorable news images ever taken, of a man in shirtsleeves carrying his shopping who in 1989 formed a one-man human barrier preventing a column of Chinese tanks advancing on protestors in Tienanmen Square. But because in real life there are several versions of that image, each taken by different newsmen, Kirkwood grabs the opportunity to construct a fictional version of history in which there was just one picture, taken by one American photographer, Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore), who, 23 years after he took the shot that came to define China's violently suppressed velvet revolution, makes it his mission to track down the fellow who became known as “tank man.”

It's a search undertaken as a commission from Joe's hard-nosed, big-softie newspaper editor Frank (Trevor Cooper) and on which he is joined by cynical correspondent Mel (Sean Gilder). Kirkwood is not afraid to flirt with cliché as long as there is a grain of truth in it, which of course there always is. The dramatist writes wittily enough to forgive the tropes. Thankfully there is no such whiff of over familiarity with Joe's Beijing friend and contact Zhang Lin, a journalist and dissident who is nicely underplayed by Benedict Wong. It is he who sets Joe on the trail of the man he last saw preventing the advance of an armoured column. The closer Joe gets to his objective, the more damage he does to those closest to him. The ethics of self-glorifying journalism is just one of the heavy questions posed with a light touch here. But the pricklier theme is implied, then stated, by the character of Tessa, who has researched Chinese consumer habits for Western multi-nationals and concluded that the West has no clue how to cope with a Chinese economy that grows at a speed unheard of since the Industrial Revolution.

As engaging as the evening is, energy levels inevitably dip. At one point it seems as if ideas and relationships have run their course. But Kirkwood keeps some humdinger revelations about her themes up her sleeve about how we interpret photographs in ways that suit the story we want told. I won't reveal them here of course. But if you want to know how, far from being embarrassed by the “tank man” picture, China may have used it as a propaganda tool, go and see Chimerica. 

 


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