Chimerica (West End)

Lucy Kirkwood’s new play about the search for the Tiananmen Square ‘Tank Man’ transfers from the Almeida to the Harold Pinter Theatre

Benedict Wong in <i>Chimerica</i>
Benedict Wong in Chimerica
© Es Devlin

Such a pleasure to re-visit this engaging, elliptical, twisty and beautifully written play by Lucy Kirkwood which has moved into the West End, its original 12-strong cast intact, from the Almeida, where it opened in May, co-produced by Rupert Goold‘s Headlong touring company.

The image of the man with the plastic bags defying the tanks in Tiananmen Square is the starting point, the famous snap here assigned to the fictional American photographer Joe Schofield, played at full tilt by the eminently watchable Stephen Campbell Moore.

“What happened next” – the man climbed on the first tank, berating the soldier inside, climbed down, resumed his station, and was then hustled away by… who knows who? They weren’t in uniform – is not the play’s business, but the identity of the protester is.

The quest takes Joe back to Beijing where he follows some mystery-encrusted clues with the help of Benedict Wong‘s affable English teacher, himself haunted by a ghostly girl who materialises in his fridge, and Claudie Blakley‘s smart but dippy trade-deal broker.

The plot thickens while Joe is supposed to be covering the last American presidential election and the fortunes of an upstate Democratic candidate (Nancy Crane gleaming in the shadow of several other downbeat roles), weighing his obsession with the Tank Man against the demands of an exasperated editor (robustly played by Trevor Cooper) who somehow comes to represent “American interests,” or at least the lack of them.

As before, the kaleidoscopic nature of Kirkwood’s construct, so brilliantly directed by Lyndsey Turner, is perfectly expressed in Es Devlin‘s ground-breaking design of a magical, rotating cube that contains solid interiors within and logos, slogans, video film and location shots without.

This technical bravura of presentation is carried right through the lighting of Tim Lutkin, the sound design of Carolyn Downing and the video design of Finn Ross. The fragmented, edgy “feel” of the production is endemic to the character of the play and its content.

Kirkwood took her title – an amalgam of China and America – from the historian Niall Ferguson, and catches on the wing a historian’s glance at the increasingly interlocking economic and political fortunes of the two superpowers. But she manages, somehow, to make this an intriguing, personal drama of love, friendship and a search for the truth between people divided in culture; it’s a magnificent achievement.

See also: Stephen Campbell Moore: ‘The Tank Man is an ongoing source of fascination’