Review: Chimerica (Harold Pinter Theatre)

By - Friday 16th August, 2013

As Lucy Kirkwood’s new play transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre, Tom Black gives his thoughts on its original run at the Almeida

Harold Pinter Theatre, Westminster
Time from East Croydon:  35 minutes 

Benedict Wong and Elizabeth Chan. Photo by Johann Persson

Who was Tank Man? Immortalised in the iconic image of the Tiananmen Square massacre, his name has never become public knowledge. Kirkwood’s play presents us with the life of the young photographer (Stephen Campbell-Moore) who took the infamous picture. Twenty years have passed since the spring of 1989, and so it’s in the present day that Campbell-Moore’s Joe attempts to track down the man who made his career but still haunts his memory.

Kirkwood’s script is generally sharp, funny and real. The plot is intriguing and builds to a pleasing conclusion. So why didn’t I enjoy it very much?

For me, the fault lies in a meandering plot. The potentially engaging psychodrama of Joe’s mad drive to find Tank Man seems pushed to one side by a desire to make this ‘an important play’ about China and her relationship with the West – particularly the US. A market researcher helping people break into ‘the Chinese market’, another journalist, and various Chinese-Americans provide a backdrop that produces an array of hits and misses – some are funny, some are poignant, but many are neither. They seem to serve only to spoil the slaloming pace of the three hour production.

After the scene ends, you’re left feeling that you’ve just watched a PowerPoint presentation explaining the themes of the play

It’s not that Chimerica isn’t good, clever or even dramatic – it is all three. What it lacks is a sense of drive. As Joe apparently sinks lower and lower into his obsession with Tank Man, the play suddenly starts to feel flabby and the narrative incoherent. Pacing is sacrificed for somewhat indulgent sequences that left me feeling like we were checking in on the rest of the main cast as they went about their lives. The members of the audience were not invested in these people, and yet here they were, serving as a sideshow. Not all of it is filler, of course. There is a very good sequence where the market researcher (appealingly portrayed by Claudie Blakley) explains to her employers that imposing Western profiles on Chinese consumers is not only flawed but potentially frightening. But, after the scene ends, you’re left feeling that you’ve just watched a PowerPoint presentation explaining the themes of the play. Which, to be frank, you have.

Benedict Wong’s Zhang Lin is the real star of the show. His control of pace and believably weary performance make his scenes gripping and, eventually, extremely moving. His fellow actors are all good – this is far from a bad piece of theatre. It has an excellent awareness of China’s relationship with the West and its own past, and combines this with some powerful human stories. The problems come with the additional plots that seem to have been nailed on to this core. Go and see Chimerica if you want to understand why China’s rise to superpower status isn’t like anything else we’ve seen before – but be prepared for a bit of a lecture.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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