5 June 1989. Beijing.
Student-led protests in Tiananmen Square are suppressed by military force; tanks are driven through the Square, shots are fired and the number of people killed is still unclear. One man carrying shopping bags stands in front of a column of these tanks, refusing to let them pass. The photo of this act is proliferated widely and becomes the most prominent photo of the massacre.
Chimerica, Almeida Theatre
The play ‘Chimerica’ by Lucy Kirkwood follows up on this event almost 25 years later. One of the photographers, Joe (fictional), who took the iconic “Tank Man” photo, tries to discover what became of this hero. Taking place during Obama’s re-election campaign, Joe decides to visit his friend Zhang Lin in Beijing. Joe asks who “Tank Man” is and whether he is still alive; Zhang Lin responds in the affirmative, setting Joe on a chase to find the man featured in the photo that made his career.
The first act was absolutely spell-binding. It moves quickly both in space and dialogue which grabbed my attention and kept it. The dialogue is quick and witty with plenty of current cultural references that kept it fresh. The cast is excellent and the characters multi-dimensional: Joe, the washed-up former photographic ingénue with something to prove; Tessa, a sharp British businesswoman with an eye for detail; Zhang Lin, suffering emotionally in silence…
The second act was slightly underwhelming by comparison to the first. The wit and quickness of the first act gave way to story-telling—the deviation in style also representing the political divergence between China and America. The Western world sees the “Tank Man” photograph as a heroic act of civil disobedience in the face tyranny; in China, the photograph was used as propaganda to show the compassion and humanity of the Chinese military.
To one man, the image represented his personal success and a victory in his nation’s battle to “export democracy”; to the other it meant a man’s demise and was a tool used to support the continued oppression of people who died trying to stand up for their rights. The audience is left to sift through the gray areas: Who is the true hero? Is either country in the right?
Seeing ‘Chimerica’ is a riveting and thought-provoking three hours to spend at the theatre. If you’re going to be in London before July 9, I highly recommend making your way to the young and trendy Islington area to see this play at the Almeida Theatre. It brings to light political issues that could not have come at a better time—the meeting between Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week in California is a testament to the connection between these countries that are inextricably linked by their global influence.
Beyond that ‘Chimerica’ is simply a great story that succeeds in making you think and feel—an absolute must-see!