The light comes up on a group of people standing clad in white, backs to the audience. They are holding a plastic shopping bag in each hand. It is an image of naïve heroism – an act of defiance in an attempt to change a nation. It is the image of the ‘Unknown hero’, of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre. They are the ‘tank man’, and this is Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica.
Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica opens during those horrific events in 1989. At the moment when thousands of Chinese civilians protesting for democracy were massacred by the Chinese army, American photographer Joe Schofield (Mark Leonard Winter) sits in a hotel room nearby. He gets the iconic shot of the ‘tank man’, but when he looks back out the window, the man has vanished.
Fast-forward to 2012. Joe is visiting China for a new assignment, and on the plane comforts an anxious Tessa (Geraldine Hakewill), on her way to Beijing to conduct research for an American credit card company. There are immediate sparks, but it’s overshadowed by a hint dropped by Joe’s friend Zhang Lin (Jason Chong): the ‘tank man’, long thought dead or forcibly disappeared, might still be alive – and living in New York. When Joe gets home he begins a hunt for the man, arguing that it will bring hope to a nation in turmoil; that it will remind Americans that an ordinary man, in a moment of courage, can make a difference.
At the heart of this story are two men, on separate continents, both in their own way trying to bring about lasting change. Chong brings a wounded quality to Zhang Lin, who is haunted by the loss of his wife and pained at the injustice in his country. As his American counterpart, Winter is a defiant and hopeful Joe, clinging to the past in order to give people faith for the future.
In the midst of these men and their missions is Hakewill’s very human, but very strong Tessa; she too finds a way to tackle injustice, fighting alongside Occupy Wall Street protesters despite working a job that seems all but designed to introduce a devastating fiscal cliff into another nation.
Kirkwood’s script is cinematic in scale and buzzes with a vibrant life from its sharp dialogue. It encourages leaps and bounds of the imagination as it jumps effortlessly between time and space from 1989 to 2012, and from China to America, in mere seconds. Her script is built on a fine line: the delicate balance between scenes that are thrilling and action-driven, such as tense moments of protest and attack,alongside moments of intimacy that are detailed and intricately personal, like moments of loneliness – or blossoming romance – in Joe and Zhang Lin’s apartments.
Kip Williams’ direction keenly tunes into this constantly shifting script to magnify its larger moments in ways that overwhelm and captivate (generally by filling the stage with a large ensemble comprised of NIDA students), but he never shies away from the real lives at the centre of these large political events, treating his characters with great care and delicacy.
In Williams’ hands, and with Kirkwood’s script at the heart, this piece never has a dull moment despite its three hour running time, and delivers some astonishingly moving moments of theatre to boot. On David Fleischer’s revolving set we are forced to confront the harsh differences between Joe’s American reality in pursuit of nothing more than a perfect photo, and the reality of Zhang Lin’s life in China, where his desperate cries for justice are constantly silenced.
When we finally must face the carnage of tanks storming the square, Nick Schlieper’s filmic lighting design and The Sweats’ harrowing sound design could make a heart stand still. Civilians run hysterically and seemingly endlessly across the stage. It is a magnitude of pain that’s difficult to bear.
Chimerica forces us to consider what is gained and lost in the name of globalisation. It raises questions of the power of political protest and everyday heroism. But despite the scope of these concepts, Kirkwood never allows us to lose touch with the people at the centre of these issues. Their pains, their desires, their hopes and fears, are felt just as strongly, and often more, than the economic or political issues raised.
In the second act, Tessa faces her employees in an attempt to present her findings on the shopping habits of Chinese consumers. Midway through, she stops and instead delivers a scathing analysis of the way in which America is trying to view China through their own hegemonic values. Tessa begs us not to put people in a pre-defined, capitalistic box; she implores us to listen to people from other cultures and see their values on their own terms – not our own.
In 2017, this message couldn’t be more relevant. In a society that is increasingly isolated, with ‘bubbles’ of similar-minded thinkers perhaps blocking some necessary perspective and communication, we need to be reminded to listen.