China is a prominent topic of conversation in Australian media, especially in recent times with shuffling political positioning between China, America, and Taiwan or between China and the Pacific island nations. As close neighbours, Australia likes to keep an eye on China, for better or worse, but we’re not the only ones as the term “Chimerica”, coined in 2006 by historian Niall Ferguson and economist Moritz Schularick to denote the relationship between the United States and China and its impact on global economic and cultural systems, indicates.
Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 play Chimerica tells the story of a fictional photo journalist Joe Schofield (Oliver Burton) attempting to track down the identity of the Tank Man, the iconic, anonymous man photographed standing down a row of Chinese tanks during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989. Through Joe’s mission to find a grain of truth from within one of the most significant events of the 20th century and one of the most sensitive eras of Chinese history, Kirkwood is able to explore the complex geopolitical relationship between America and China as it pertains to American media in Joe’s editor Frank (Les Asmussen), to economic interests in the character of Tessa (Jasmin Certoma) who has been hired by an American credit card company to study the Chinese population for consumer information before they enter the Chinese market, to political interests with senator Maria (Alice Livingstone) and the backdrop of the 2012 Presidential Election, as well as the impact on Chinese citizen like Zhang Lin (Jon-Claire Lee), an English language teacher and close contact for Joe who is punished by the government for his dissenting views. With many narrative arcs and characters cross-pollinating the plot, Chimerica is a dense and multi-layered script that illustrates the deeply intertwined connections between these two nations as well as the tangled web of secrets and misinformation used to control the public perception of China.
The structure of short scenes that jumped from 1989 to 2012, moved rapidly between locations across New York and China, and included flashbacks to Zhang Lin’s memories of his fiance Liuli (Liz Lin) meant the production moved along quickly. With contextualising information provided in Andrea Tan’s costume design and the use of projected photographs by Verica Nikolic, which summarised the summer of 1989 in Tiananmen Square as well as fulfilling the setting of the characters’ homes, work places, and restaurants, the audience were kept in tow with the shifts in time and space on stage. The set design by Tom Bannerman was prominent with large elements to fill out the stage and allow room for the ensemble cast to move and gather. It accommodated the projections onto a large semi-transparent screen and used a mountain of red silk stage-right to serve as a seating bank for the ensemble when they were awaiting their scenes. Scattered across the floor were large shards of black acrylic like shattered glass which alluded to the destruction and carnage of the massacre while also providing a symbolic reflective surface for the production.
These monumental design elements as well as some characterisations of powerful players like Asmussen’s big newspaperman personality and a dramatic rendering of Zhang Lin’s torture at the hands of the Chinese government, lit with blinding white light by lighting designer Michael Schell, indicated Louise Fischer’s directorial approach to the production as focused on the grander cultural, political, and economic themes and implications of Kirkwood’s script. However, neglect of the smaller, more subtle and delicate interpersonal relationships between the characters meant the production struggled to achieve any substantial emotional resonance. Frequently the dialogue between characters was stilted and unnatural, making it difficult to connect with them and follow their individual character arcs.
The exception to this was Tony Goh as Zhang Lin’s brother Zhang Wei whose delivery was soft and believable as he moved between languages and emotions in humorous, caring, and fearful scenes. Similarly, Certoma’s performance as fly-in businesswoman Tessa was convincing as she balanced her intelligence, business acumen, and vulnerability for a fully-rounded characterisation. These more restrained performances contrasted with the larger, more dramatic characters and amplified the stakes of their performances. For example, Burton’s Joe became zealous in his determination to find Tank Man when placed alongside Certoma’s Tessa or his fellow photo journalist Mel (Ciarán O’Riordan) who saw themselves as much smaller players in geopolitical systems of power. Or Lee’s Zhang Lin whose defiance seemed reckless and his trauma unbearable when being comforted by his brother, who simply got on with living as a factory owner with an Americanised son (Matthew Yuen). These juxtaposed styles of performance demonstrated the actors’ and Fischer’s understanding of the ever-shifting distinction between denial and acknowledgement, care and control, and trauma and freedom that countenances the complex emotional landscape of Chimerica.
While works like this production attempt to flesh out tangled webs of international and multigenerational significance, it’s integral to remember that the weightiness of such keystone events is made up of real people and the loss of their equally intricate, individual, and valuable lives.
Chimerica is running at New Theatre from August 15th – September 10th
To help support Night Writes, please consider tipping.