We’ve Come Again to Tiananmen

Lucy Kirkwood’s absorbing and visually ambitious Chimerica ranks as one of the year’s best plays

Theatre

Hurrah, one of my theatrical wishes has come true at a click of my Dorothy red heels. I have been raving all summer about what a grand play Chimerica is. With admirable speed, the Almeida’s and Headlong’s co-production has just transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End. I can’t think of a more absorbing and ambitious drama to tempt us into the autumn stalls.

Set in Beijing, the day the tanks advanced towards demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and around the last American election, Lucy Kirkwood’s tableau tackles one of the biggest subjects of the era: the relationship between China and America. At a time when political drama in Britain tends to the pedestrian, partisan or blithely parochial, here is an offering which rises above the obvious to deal with the  tensions and possibilities of the interconnected world with flair and intellectual brio.

Kirkwood provides a simple plot which contains a welter of complexities, doubts and interpretations. As the dissident uprising is crushed, Joe, a young American photographer (Stephen Campbell Moore), captures the compelling image of the young Chinese protestor standing in front of a tank and refusing to budge — a piece of history held in a haunting image. 

More than two decades later, a message left in the small ads of a newspaper leads Joe to track down the nameless hero, a quest which becomes first obsessive and then illuminating, though not quite as he imagined.

Chimerica pays long overdue homage to a generation shaped by the failures of the Tiananmen revolution. Joe’s best source has a recurring nightmare in which his young fiancée, killed by a stray bullet, emerges from his kitchen fridge. Belatedly he is driven by guilt and frustration to a brave, doomed act of resistance to the regime’s denial of its role in ecological havoc. 

The play reminds us how much has changed since Joe shot his famous image of “tank man”. His on-off girlfriend Tessa, a perky, chain-smoking Claudie Blakley, is busy segmenting the Chinese market for a credit-card company trying to understand a lucrative new opportunity, while the rhetoric of the Obama-Romney election reflects the fear and awe of China’s growing economic power.

Meanwhile, the paper for which Joe toiled so proudly is in a Washington Post kind of mess, staving off collapse with dubious adventures involving multi-digital platforms and reader chat-rooms: one of the sharpest dissections of media woes since Ron Howard’s 1994 film The Paper

Campbell Moore shines as an edgy Boho driven by a mix of curiosity and egomania. Like all good hacks, part of him wants to tell the truth, while the other less edifying part simply wants to to relive his glory days and stave off mid-career frustration in a declining print market. 

Through lazy charm, Moore exudes the whiff of moral danger he exhibited as the manipulative schoolmaster in the screen version of The History Boys. And he masters one of the hardest acts for an Englishman, playing a credible East Coast American. 

All this happens on a stage dominated by computer-generated imagery, whisking us between Manhattan and Beijing. Sets are by Es Devlin and video design by Finn Ross, who both deserve plaudits for one of the best visual experiences of the year.

If Chimerica has a flaw, it is that it cannot quite resist the old saw that no good will come of capitalist exploits, so Tessa is given a dirgeful speech on why the Chinese embrace of consumer goods might turn out to be a disaster. The perfect global economy, according to the national guild of theatre directors, would appear be one in which as little as possible happens. But this is a small gripe about a thoroughly absorbing tale of our times and well worth a few of your pounds, dollars or yuan.

Another transfer for autumn is the Young Vic’s A Doll’s House, one of the more audacious updatings of Ibsen’s uncompromisingly feminist classic, now at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Simon Stephens, the most prolific of British playwrights, likes staging stories of wasted lives and destructive drive in contemporary Blighty in his own works, such as Port at the National and Morning at the Lyric, Hammersmith. As a fellow miserabilist Ibsen must therefore have been hard to resist.

Hattie Morahan’s Nora has the Christmas crisis every downtrodden wife and mother fantasises about, a mixture of ennui and sheer rage. “A woman cannot be herself in a society run by men,” is her cutting assessment of bourgeois life in late 19th-century Norway, albeit a sentiment echoed in just about every feminist reading theory group since. 

There’s a subtle time-shift here, with Nora in the kind of  long dress which might be worn now, and contemporary speech rhythms as she muses about the unequal trade-off of personality and motherhood. In Carrie Cracknell’s production, the giddy underlying hysteria of Nora’s becalmed life is reflected in a revolving stage, a merry-go-round of emotions and despair. On occasion all this stage-revolution disrupts the flow of Ibsen’s famously long and discursive scenes, which is a loss. Future drama historians may wonder what it was about the post-millennial period which convinced directors that the classics had to be accompanied by continuous circular motion. 

But in the ultimate conflict with Torwald (Dominic Rowan), her driven, dominant husband, the balance of forces is both destructive and thrilling. The famous final door slam is conducted with the verve of a bad-tempered Valkyrie, and Stephens supplies the most cataclysmic mud-slinging row. 

This version denies Torwald’s despairing, conciliatory ending, leaving no shred of comfort or regret. That’s Scandi-noir for you, long before Sarah Lund and her jumpers. She wasn’t a candidate for mum of the year either.