Pronounced as a combination of China and America, Chimerica is a term coined by historian Niall Ferguson and economist Moritz Schularick to describe the symbiotic relationship between China and the United States. Lucy Kirkwood‘s Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre is a fantastic piece of theatre that touches on many themes such as the West’s uncomfortable relationship with China and it’s inability to effectively break into its large and booming economy. Kirkwood spent six years writing the play and it is clear they were well spent.
Using the old sleuthing technique to draw us into the story, Kirkwood weaves a story around Joe Schofield, a photojournalist, who captured a piece of history when he photographed a young Chinese man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Twenty-three years later, Joe is covering the 2012 American election campaign and is looking for a story when he gets a bee in his bonnet about finding what has happened to the “tank” man of the photo.
The journey takes us through 39 scenes alternating between the stark realities of consumer politics in America to the disaffected life of Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), an old friend of Joe, back in Beijing. The play is further enhanced by the use of a very clever set (designed by Es Devlin), which uses projections against a giant revolving cube to ensure that the action moves incredibly swiftly. In fact, it is almost filmic. Kirkwood has the uncanny ability to give us very perceptive snapshots of both countries without ever feeling that we are seeing caricatures of either. Lyndsey Turner (Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Donmar Warehouse and Posh at the Royal Court/West End) directs a fantastic cast.
Stephen Campbell Moore, as Joe, is outstanding as an obsessed and eternally hopeful American journalist on a quest, without a thought for the consequences to his job, his friend Mel and his new lover, Tessa, played with the right intensity by Claudie Blakley. As a market research consultant, she has an uncanny ability to pinpoint Joe and Mel’s “type” with much hilarity. Sean Gilder, who plays the coarse sidekick reporter Mel to perfection gets increasingly tired with his friend’s antics while Joe’s editor Frank, played with deadpan assurance by Trevor Cooper, is extremely funny as the cynical fast talking newspaper man facing a new world of instant internet news. Meanwhile in Beijing, the life of Zhang Lin is turned upside down when he dares to complain about the level of smog in the city. Whereas Joe is encouraged to ask questions in the West, Zhang Lin suffers at the hands of a repressive regime and is shunned by his own brother (David K.S. Tse).
Kirkwood’s play gives us an insight into China that is rarely seen on stage, that of skyscraper luxury and wealth, which seems to resemble any city in the West, against the effects of a repressive regime on the country’s very large workforce. As Joe’s girlfriend reminds us, China, while enthralled with Western goods and standard of living will not become just one more market for the West. China will grow and dominate the world on its own terms. Make no mistake about it.