For a reason unbeknownst to me, last night I suddenly decided that I HAD to go to the theatre soon. As a sophisticated Londoner (hem hem) I would like to be able to say that spontaneous theatre (pronounced thee-ah-ter, dahling) trips are a twice-monthly occurrence, but sadly my budget does not normally allow it. Nevertheless, it was with feverish enthusiasm that I found myself scouring the West End listings at random, when I came across a bizarrely named play, Chimerica. I found out later that this was a portmanteau of “China” and “America”, though I was saying “chimera” in my head at first (typical).
Only the rave reviews made me stop and investigate, and that was when I felt it must have been the theatre gods who imbued me with the sudden urge to visit the theatre, because the timing seemed all but numinous. In my last week (yes, one week now!) before China, I randomly decide to go to the theatre and stumble across a play about, well, China! Not a common phenomenon in the West End, at least not in my consciousness (though to be fair, it is a play just as much about America).
Chimerica, written by Lucy Kirkwood, covers too many things to fit into a post, but in the most elementary, simplistic terms, the story tells of an American photojournalist, who was one of the photographers to capture the picture of the “tank man” during the Tiananmen Massacre on 4 June 1989. Two decades later, a mysterious coded message in a newspaper renews his fascination for the anonymous, heroic figure and he begins an obsessive search for him, throwing the lives of friends, colleagues and strangers, both in China and the US, into disarray. On the way we get some insight into American and Chinese politics, the world of journalism, and lots more besides.
You can read the various reviews out there online to get the expert critics’ opinion (all effulgent) on the razor-sharp dialogue, slick production (great use of a round, rotating stage) and complex, multi-layered structure. You can trust that all these things captivated me, too. Yet what really struck me was the awful, heart-rending truthfulness and relevance of the portrayal of the Chinese characters’ lives: Zhang, the middle-aged English teacher living alone in his apartment in Beijing, widowed at the age of 20 at Tiananmen, and haunted by the spectre of his late wife and their former political idealism. His neighbour, a 59-year-old lady who looks ten years older, a former poster girl for the Party, dying from “Beijing lung”. The illegal immigrant couple in New York, who know something about the photo but just want to live in peace and get by. The young Chinese journalist who unwittingly allowed the secret message to be published in the paper, who is black-marked forever, and has to work as a stripper to make money.
All these tragic personages are testament to one, sole, solid, ringing, tragic fact: they are victims of a government that does not care about its people. That does not even pretend to. I found myself mutely applauding with the rest of the audience at the play’s abrupt and shocking end, trying to control my lacrimation. I left the matinée performance in a daze, my head filled with what I had just seen, only coming to when I came within inches of being run over by a rickshaw (his fault, not mine!)
Hours later, in the evening, when other things had taken over my mind, I found myself sobbing under the shower at the sudden memory of Zhang’s (played to perfection by Benedict Wong) almost childlike breaking down after both being tortured and reliving the events of the massacre. I knew then I had to write about it. This is a play that manages to be hugely funny (the audience were laughing out loud throughout), yet equally serious and moving; informative (you’ll learn a lot about modern China), sophisticated but accessible, political yet personal. It is a tour de force of sensitive, skilled and imaginative writing and performing. Plus it was nice to see some Chinese people on stage for once!
If it is at all possible for you, I urge you to go see this play. If not, as one journalist said, it will probably be studied in schools in years to come, so you might come into contact with the text anyway. Productions like this need to be seen by many; more than the limited crowd that has the means to go to the theatre in London. Writing like this deserves all the praise Kirkwood is getting. Stories like this might shake you up out of your ensconced, comfortable little world to count your western blessings.