Chimerica review (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

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Chimerica marks Kip Williams’ first production as Sydney Theatre Company’s permanent artistic director, and is an auspicious and crowd-pleasing starting point for the young theatre-maker.

British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s widely-acclaimed 2013 play is a rich, absorbing and mysterious piece of drama set between China and America (hence the title). It follows Joe Schofield (Mark Leonard Winter), a fictional American photojournalist who was stationed in Beijing in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre unfolded.

As a young man, Joe managed to capture one of the iconic images of “Tank Man“, the single protester who, armed with just two flimsy plastic shopping bags, stood in front of a row of tanks, refusing to allow them to advance.

The fate of Tank Man remains unknown, but in Kirkwood’s play, Joe receives a tip-off in 2012 that the mysterious man is living somewhere in New York. He sets off on a quest to uncover the man’s identity, believing the world needs to know more about that anonymous act of heroism.

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At the same time, Joe’s friend in China, Zhang Lin (Jason Chong) decides to tell the truth about air pollution in Beijing, following the death of his 59-year-old neighbour.

Chimerica is operatic in scale and filmic in style, running just over three hours with an intermission, across almost 40 scenes.

That presents a series of challenges to a director: how do you maintain a consistent tone, ensure audiences are able to make connections as scenes chop and change, and simply manage all the necessary fast scene changes?

Rather than employing any kind of cutting edge technologies, Williams uses a cast of 32, made up of his 12 core cast members and 20 NIDA students who act as an ensemble, acting, singing, and moving furniture on and off the stage. They have a completely bare, open stage (design by David Fleischer) to play upon, with just a single revolve to give the play a sense of movement.

It’s rare that Australian audiences get to see a play populated by so many bodies, and it results in moments of spectacle that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise. They’ve been perfectly choreographed, right from the stunning opening tableau, through to the abstract staging which represents the famous massacre.

But the use of so many bodies also adds emotional and dramatic weight to this story, which is all about the force of people.

Mark Leonard Winter and Jason Chong
Mark Leonard Winter and Jason Chong

For a play with such a broad outlook, Kirkwood has found a razor-sharp focus, which manages to be both intimate and personal, and often very funny, while tackling broader political and cultural issues. She also examines how our politics and day-to-day lives can intersect, or be entirely at odds with one another.

For the most part, this production does absolute justice to the broad spectrum of the play, although there’s the occasional intimate scene in which Williams’ staging and Nick Schlieper’s otherwise superb lighting design don’t quite make up for the fact that there are two people having a quiet conversation on a huge, empty stage.

But these are minor quibbles in a production that’s beautifully performed and as entertaining as it is provocative.

Mark Leonard Winter is perfect as Joe, the photographer who becomes obsessed with the notion of heroism. It’s entirely clear that Joe wants to be a saviour himself, but in the two decades since he saw Tank Man, nothing has come close in either his own life, or in the lives he’s observed.

Jason Chong balances the text’s wit and gravity in a sharp and very moving performance as Zhang Lin, baring witness to China’s constant change.

Geraldine Hakewill is the best I’ve seen her thus far as the young and switched-on business and culture consultant Tessa. She also makes the absolute most of an excellent monologue about the economic and cultural relationship between China and the US.

Brent Hill is also in fine form as the rudely blunt journo Mel, while Anthony Brandon Wong’s take on Zhang Lin’s brother is an excellent counterpoint to Chong’s performance.

The entire cast is excellent — Rebecca Massey and Tony Cogin are stand-outs in a variety of roles, while Charles Wu is particularly strong as both the young Zhang Lin and his millennial American nephew, Benny.

The opening night audience responded with a strong and spontaneous standing ovation, which is still relatively rare in Sydney theatre. It was probably in part a response to the sheer scale of the piece, and in part a response to the very rare sight of so many excellent Asian performers on one of the country’s most prestigious stages.

But the response was mostly because this is a piece that thrills and keeps its audience entirely involved for the full running time. That’s not something you can say about many three-hour epics.

THIS REVIEW WAS PUBLISHED WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT MORE HERE

Chimerica is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 1. Images by Brett Boardman

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