Review by Jack Mitchell
‘Maybe photographs are like people. The more there are of them, the less any individual one means’.
We all know the Tank Man photo. The chilling 1989 image of a solitary figure facing a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square looms large in the public imagination. It also looms large on an enormous screen during the opening sequence of New Theatre’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica.
The play, initially staged at the Almeida in London in 2013, follows the attempts of photographer Joe Schofield (Oliver Burton) to track down the faceless man from the famous photo he took as a budding photographer in Beijing in 1989. Kirkwood’s text explores the intertwining relationship between China and America at a political and personal level during the following 23-year period. Marketing, politics, the East/West divide and dirty journalism are refracted through the lives of its core characters, particularly Joe and his contact in China, Zhang Lin (Jon-Claire Lee).
Louise Fischer’s production brings out the play’s emphasis on the photographic medium, with the characters’ fates resting on a single image. Large black reflective shards make up the base of Tom Bannerman’s set, capturing flickers of light from the monumental screen behind it. The polaroid-esque fragments hint at Joe’s task of piecing together the parts of his story, and the disparate lives that form the play’s human heart. The staging remains static at times, with scenes being played out repeatedly on certain sections of the stage. Even so, this decision results in multiple visual tableaux which also allude to the photographic form. Members of the cast sit on a red-draped platform upstage while not performing, observing the action like Joe does through his camera. Their stillness itself is photographic, a constant presence with a self-reflective effect on the audience – are we voyeurs, observers, or participators in this narrative?
Andrea Tan’s costume design recalls the bleeding red of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and also the bleeding of culture into culture as with China and America. The red of the drapes seeps into the characters’ costumes in a tie, a scarf, or lipstick, and helps us to see the interconnectedness of the two global giants.
Burton gives a frenetic and driven performance as Joe, drawing us into his desperate search for the Tank Man with great effect. Lee is an authentic and grounded Zhang Lin, balancing the mournful reflectiveness of a man with a troubled past with great levity and comic timing. Tony Goh also gives a solid performance as his brother who sees the story very differently. Les Asmussen and Jasmin Certoma also give standout performances as a scoundrel magazine executive and a quick-witted market researcher respectively.
Under Fischer’s direction, this play of epic proportions is told with tenderness and human complexity. Among many pertinent questions, it asks us what it means to look: To look at a culture different from our own, to look at its people with human hopes and struggles, to look at a famous photograph that freezes a moment in time. And it reminds us that we often misconceive what we see. Chimerica confronts us with the reality that we are often looking at things the wrong way.
Chimerica is playing at The New Theatre until September 10.
Image Credit: Chris Lundie