Sunday, March 12, 2017

Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood

Jason Chong as Zhang Lin
Mark Leonard Winter as Joe Schofield
Geraldine Hakewill
in rehearsal as Tessa Kendrick
Photos by Hon Boey / Brett Boardman

 Chimerica by  Lucy Kirkwood.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 6 – April 3, 2017.
Artistic Director – Kip  Williams.
Designers: Set – David Fleischer; Costumes – Renee Mulder; Lighting – Nick Schlieper; Composer and Sound – The Sweats; Assistant Director – Jessica Arthur; Voice and Text – Charmian Gradwell.
Cast (alphabetical order):
Matthew Backer – David Barker/Peter Rourke/Paul Kramer/Officer Hyte; Gabrielle Chan – Feng Mehui/Ming Xiaoli; Jason Chong – Zhang Lin; Tony Cogin – Frank/Herb/Drug Dealer; Geraldine Hakewill – Tessa Kendrick; Brent Hill – Mel Stanwyck; Rebecca Massey – Barb/Doreen/Maria Dubiecki/Kate/Judy; Monica Sayers – Michelle/Mary Chang/Deng/Dawn/Nurse/Pengsi’s Wife; Mark Leonard Winter – Joe Schofield; Anthony Brandon Wong – Zhang Wei/Wang Pengsi/Guard; Charles Wu – Young Zhang Lin/Benny; Jenny Wu – Liuli/Jennifer.
With Ensemble of 20 NIDA Diploma of Musical Theatre students.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 11

First, a major play must be written by an author of integrity with a complex and original imagination.  British writer Lucy Kirkwood more than fits the bill with her story of the search in 2012 by ‘Joe Schofield’, supposedly one of the photojournalists who captured the shot of the ‘tank man’ in Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989, to find out what happened to him after the student protest was so violently broken up.  This event has special significance for Australians, whose Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, broke down in tears – and announced that Chinese students studying here could remain in Australia permanently, breaking the standard rules for student visas.  This play reminds us how rarely such human sympathy is expressed, let alone put into practice by Governments of any persuasion in any nation state.

Second, the right artistic decisions must be made by the theatre company to bring forth the meaning of the drama.  Sydney Theatre Company’s Kip Williams and the design team were right on, writing in Kip’s program Message: “Kirkwood sets a complex challenge with her plethora of scenes and settings [over three hours in five acts], her cinematic writing style, and her near surgical detail regarding character, plot, prop and location.  We decided very early on that in meeting this challenge we would use no wizardry (no video, no projection or the like).  We wanted this story to be delivered to you by and through the actors.  We wanted Kirkwood’s story about people power to be one brought to life through flesh and blood.”

Their decisions were perfect for this playscript.  On a bare stage, the scenes including the fast and smooth rolling on and off of furniture and props were choreographed into a continuous dance, with the same kind of seemingly natural internal logic of a major dance work.  Complex as it is, showing us parallels and linkages developing in the plot side by side in Beijing and New York, I felt as though I was watching an artistic work grow.

Chimerica, pronounced Tchai-merica, is a major work indeed.

Did  Joe Schofield succeed in his quest to find Tank Man?  Did TM survive, perhaps even escape to America?  Of course I can’t reveal the answer, except to say that nothing in this play is simple.  No relationship, between individuals personally or between individuals and the State, follow predictable expectations – just as in real life.

That’s what makes this play great!  Even though it was written Before Trump.  It helps if you remember Obama’s elections and the possibility of Hillary for President.  In the end, though, knowing the particular politics is not necessary.  It’s the humanity of the play you will not forget.

The central thread of the story revolves around American Joe Schofield, young roving news photographer; the student he befriends in Beijing at the time of the student protest, Zhang Lin; and the young British woman he meets on his flight to Beijing, Tessa Kendrick, a ‘market profiler’ for an international  corporation planning to begin operations in China.  The fine characterisation and sustained intensity of these three actors – Mark Leonard Winter, Jason Chong and Geraldine Hakewill – maintain the strength of the drama extraordinarily well.

Perhaps it was Hakewill’s solo scene giving her presentation to world business leaders, i.e. us in the audience, that was the greatest demonstration of acting at the many levels of her character as Tessa began to realise the enormity of the social control of the individual not only in China by the government but in the assumptions of big business.

But it is the story and strength of Zhang Lin which is equally horrifying, played out in a frightening representation of the attack by army tanks on the students on 4th June 1989 in Beijing.  Lest we forget.