How do you turn an analysis of contemporary East/West politics into a smart-mouthed, sharply paced drama? Pour it into a convincing thriller plot. That’s what Lucy Kirkwood has done in her seriously smart “Chimerica.” To combine China’s embrace of capitalism vs. America expansionism, collective responsibility vs. individualism, political purity vs. expediency, the naivety of single-issue politics and more into an entertaining three hours is hugely ambitious. But, aided by Lyndsey Turner’s fleet, zesty production, the ambition is matched by achievement. A movie version is surely in the offing.
Kirkwood’s springboard is as intriguing as it is bold. Who was the unknown man who stopped the tanks during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and, specifically, where is he now? That’s the question that plagues (fictional) press photographer Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) whose image of the event, captured from his hotel room, went around the world. In the midst the run-up to the 2012 election, he persuades his skeptical editor (testy Trevor Cooper) to give him the resources to try to find the mystery man.
Schofield’s quest is largely attendant upon his friendship with Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong) who, twenty-three years on, still lives in Beijing and also remains haunted by the massacre and its aftermath. He’s living in increasingly straitened circumstances under a regime in which the all-powerful party is revealed to be as dangerously doctrinaire as the Communism it replaced.
Other strands arrive pell-mell throughout the lengthy first act, not least the Englishwoman Tess (beautifully droll and crisp Claudie Blakeley,) who works for a multinational credit card company and has been hired to profile the Chinese population so that the US can make inroads into the market. Her seemingly casual relationship with Joe, whose views she finds earnest, gently but persuasively parallels the play’s concerns with differing viewpoints over the play’s core dilemmas.
There’s no shame in the fact that, tonally, the play has echoes of everything from Alan Pakula’s 70s conspiracy movies via Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” right back to the classic post-WWII thriller “The Third Man.” Kirkwood takes the idea of an obsessive personal manhunt and runs with it, her narrative device acting as a framework upon which she can hang numerous political ideas. That the arguments about Chinese growth or American responsibilities are engaging rather than hectoring is down to the strength of the characterizations and the delightful wit with which Kirkwood expresses her ideas.
That’s clearest in the handling of Joe. Moore brings a rangy, well-sprung energy to the role that makes his politically motivated zeal feel wholly authentic. He’s most definitely the hero, so it’s all the more powerfully complicated when Kirkwood deftly undercuts his admirably liberal truth-telling with a questioning of his motives.
Nor is she averse to grabbing theatrical devices from flashbacks to ghostly apparitions to create vivid tension with the key Chinese characters caught between the defining past and the uncertain present.
Worries that the play might take easy sides for or against America or China are swiftly dispelled. Political piety is banished or made palatable via the oblique angles Kirkwood takes and the unusual entry points she uses. Even expository scenes are given unusual dynamism and crucial plot twists stem not from the author withholding information to ramp up tension but from properly timed disclosures of character-driven perspective. Thus the unforeseen trajectory of the drama feels satisfying, not tricksy.
Turner’s expert pacing keeps all the play’s plates spinning. Much of that is thanks to Finn Ross’s outstanding scene-setting video projections that instantly conjure a huge variety of locations across Es Devlin’s revolving, adaptable white-cube set. But Turner also elicits pin-sharp performances from her supporting cast. Sean Gilder is amusingly rancid as a seen-it-all journalist and Sarah Lam is viciously pragmatic as a woman smuggling Chinese people into the US. And Nancy Crane wittily pops up in a variety of roles from power-playing Democrat candidate to a stooping, deliciously vengeful secretary.
Six years in development (plus much last-minute trimming and reworking in rehearsal,) it is, by a long shot, 29-year-old Kirkwood’s most sophisticated play. The first act still has structural flaws, but the darker second act not only widens and deepens the arguments, it truly delivers on the play’s promise. With a cast of twelve it’s not an easy commercial proposition, but the strength of the play and its production should guarantee future life after this limited seven-week run.