Monday, June 24, 2013

Chimerica: Where Are All The Heroes

"They turned out the lights to scare us and then...I don't know.  Maybe they did not come back on again for me." Zhang Lin

"I want to meet a hero, a genuine, you know, hero."  Joe Schofield
A man stands on a rooftop in China and shouts English into the wind--helping his students to conquer English will strengthen China he says.  It may be true because at this moment America and China, have at long last found common ground--everyone likes to make money and they've found a way to make money from each other.  This symbiotic relationship between American and China was perhaps unthinkable to two men, one American and one Chinese, who more than twenty years earlier experienced the Tienanmen Square massacre.  With the passage of time since those momentous events, we are given the opportunity through Lucy Kirkwood's new play Chimerica to revisit what happened then and what is taking place now in American/Chinese relations.  The result is an epic play addressing the political and the personal and suffused with Kirkwood's trademark biting and funny dialogue.  I struggled with certain aspects of the play, but when it was all said and done I found the pluses far outweighed any minuses here.

Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) was 18 when he lucked out and took the iconic picture of the man standing in front of the tank during the demonstrations in Tienanmen Square.  In his travels to China he befriended Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), an English teacher, who has taught him about the Chinese people and their culture.  More than twenty years later Joe, now a seasoned war photographer dissatisfied with the state of journalism and his life, returns to China with journalist Mel (Sean Gilder) to do a story on Chinese factories.  On the flight he meets Englishwoman Tessa (Claudie Blakley) who is on her way to China for the first time to do market research on how to sell products to the Chinese market.  Joe learns from Zhang Lin that the Tank Man may not be dead and Joe sets our to find the man behind the image.  The mystery behind the Tank Man's identity drives Joe to find meaning in his photo and his life.  But Joe cannot really see what is in front of him. Messing around with Tessa, neglecting his friendship with Zhang Lin, and letting his myopia for truth, justice, and heroism get in the way of his job, his journey undoes more than it reveals.  For Zhang Lin, Joe's visit stirs up memories of his past and his long-dead wife (Elizabeth Chan) and for the first time he starts to confront feelings he has long repressed. 

One of the hardest things to do is to get people to see things from a new perspective.  We're so entrenched in our own point of view.   Understanding or connecting to other people may often be the goal, but how often is it the result?  Kirkwood explores the question of shared understanding and perspectives through photography, history, friendships and relationships.  The misunderstandings in the play are sometimes cultural or linguistic, but there are also the disconnections we encounter because our hearts and minds cannot find a way to reach one another.

It feels so rare to encounter a contemporary play that undertakes so much and is largely successful with it.  It is a play about history so the length and depth of the material calls out for a longer treatment.  But Kirkwood doesn't just set up a mystery to solve with the identity of the Tank Man, she also tries to address the ideas behind the Chinese protests and how both Americans and Chinese have changed in the intervening years.  Arguments of democracy, freedom, and justice that once may have dominated the rhetoric are now are all couched in economic terms.  As Zhang Lin says to Joe, "This country owns you.  You don't get to lecture us any more.  I subscribe to this website, for my teaching, it sends me new American slangs and phrases each week. You know what phrase I learnt this week? Fiscal cliff."  Even contemporary protest movements (Occupy Wall Street being the one Kirkwood hones in on) seem to start from an economic justice place.

And Kirkwood brings to life two men who are unhappy.  Both end up on a quest focused on the past which may or may not lead them to a new future.

Despite all this heavy material, Kirkwood's primary strength is that she writes fun and frothy dialogue that belies the emotional and personal stories she is telling.  I found that she achieved this with her prior play NSFW and again in Chimerica.  Her banter is incredible because it is funny, sly, and unassuming.  And at times it can be dark and trenchant.  Nothing quite feels like a lecture or needless exposition here. It's effortless and breezy. You're laughing, then you realize you have a window into the characters in a deeper way than you thought. 

But Kirkwood is less deft when it comes to expressing the Chinese characters and the story between Zhang Lin and his wife Liuli. It seems harder for her to strike a sincere or sentimental tone. Dropping all snark and wit, Zhang Lin's heavily emotional storyline does not feel like it has the same weight as Joe's story.  Zhang Lin (as an adult and young man) and Liuli were less clear and the moments they have together on stage did not carry the same confidence that scenes between Joe and Tessa had (which were largely banter driven), for instance.  The result is that the Joe story line feels stronger (and perhaps because of this I found it took on greater importance in this production--which I'm not sure was the intent). 

Some of this imbalance may have also been a product of  performance as well.  I did not find the actors playing Zhang Lin as an adult (Benedict Wong) and as a young man (Andrew Leung) really got across the heart of what was going on with that character.  Zhang Lin is meant to be introverted, but I did not feel for him in the way that I should have.  Adding to further imbalance, Stephen Campbell Moore and Claudie Blakley had such strong chemistry that their relationship came alive much more (seriously give them a rom-com ASAP folks). Moore was sympathetic and charming that it was a little too easy to forgive him for his character's selfish behavior.  A number of actors played multiple roles to great success including Vera Chok (particularly a stand-out as the stripper Mary Chang), Sarah Lam, and David K.S. Tse.

***SPOILER ALERT***

Now I'm not going to ruin the big reveal at the end of the play. But when it happened I actually found it a little too convenient for my liking.  I felt like earlier surprises in the play had been more meaningful because they shifted my expectations and turned certain themes in the play on their head.  They forced me to reconsider my own assumptions.  But with the finale, I "got" the aspects of the mystery that were answered, but I did not feel the emotional impact of it.

I believe this was the fault of the production and performances.  When I went back to read the play I saw how Kirkwood had laid the groundwork toward that ending and I thought it was more organic than what I saw on stage.  But I never felt that clarity of purpose and coherence in the production.  And perhaps, even the play itself, answers more questions than I wanted answered.  There's so much about the play that exists in the grey--motivations, moral high grounds, rightness and wrongness.  I was attracted to those waffling conversations and preferred them to a very black and white answer offered. 

Director Lyndsey Turner has chosen to stage the play on a rotating set with a cube design (set design by Es Devlin).  Like a Rubik's cube, each rotation changed the make-up of the story.  From Beijing to New York, to Middle America, and into the past.  Photograph contact sheets, scenes of contemporary China, America, and cues as to where we were (New York brownstones) were projected onto the cube and gave the otherwise cold metal cube a narrative purpose.

I guess one could argue that the revolving cube, where different scenes unfolded and shifting through time and space, was working to unlock the mystery contained within it.  But the metaphor is a little stretched and I did not feel the visual necessity of the cube.  Unfortunately I was also in the front row so I did not always have the best vantage point for all the scenes when they were recessed within the cube. 

Certainly the omnipresent photography kept my mind on the issues of truth, memory, and what we see.  As author John Berger has written:
"Every image embodies a way of seeing.  Even a photograph.  For photographs are not, as often assumed, a mechanical record.  Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however, slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights....Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image also depends upon our own way of seeing."
Turner uses a lot of photographic imagery that builds on the questions in Kirkwood's play. And maybe to some degree my intellectualizing the visuals, getting lost in Joe's identity as a photographer, and ruminating on Tessa's efforts to label and categorize the world, led me astray for the finale. Or they were the strongest elements of the production and therefore they dominated my thinking and attention.  Or they are just more in sync with my way of seeing. 

No matter my resistance to the "finale," I found the play stayed with me even weeks later.  Interesting writing, strong characters, and a massive undertaking to make sense of politics and cultural divides.  I'd be curious how an American audience would react to it. 

2 comments:

  1. Love the review, thank you. REALLY wish I could've seen this one. Contemporary American playwrights simply don't take on epic issues like this (at least I can't think of any recent ones... can you?), which is ironic considering that a lot of these British big-issue plays are about the U.S.

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    1. I guess Angels in America is the one that comes to mind. I never saw The Kentucky Cycle. That's why The Flick seemed so impressive to me because it took its time to create an environment that suited the story. I don't think a 90 min version of that play would work. But the 3 hour version seemed right. But the subject matter was not epic in the same sense. It could be an issue of funding more than writing. But now you've made me think if there are plays I'm just not thinking of.

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