The future is almost here

Caroline Wake: Sydney Theatre Company, Chimerica

Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Chimerica is so timely it feels predestined. Lucy Kirkwood’s play premiered in 2013 but was prescient enough to include a reference to Donald Trump, which now gives the piece what director Kip Williams, in an audio interview with Keith Gallasch, describes as an “internal irony.” Of course, this irony was not yet apparent when Williams programmed it last year but in March 2017, Chimerica feels like the perfect play.


The image

The performance commences with the entire company, which consists of 12 principals and 20 ensemble members, entering from stage right. Dressed in black pants and white shirts and carrying white plastic shopping bags, they shuffle back and forth and swing their bags in an abbreviated version of the tank man’s movement that inspired artist Deborah Kelly to make it the focus for her 2009 large-scale public participatory work Tank Man Tango: A Tiananmen Memorial (see RealTime 93). Suddenly the company departs and leaves a single man standing downstage, his back to the audience. This is tank man and the premise of the play is that he might be alive and living in the US.


Time frames

The scene changes rapidly to reveal another lone man—American photographer Joe Schofield (Mark Leonard Winter)—watching the protest from his hotel room with a phone in one hand and a camera in the other. He interrupts his frantic narration once to take some photographs and then again to hide the roll of film from soldiers at the door. The scene dissolves and now we are in the present day, seated on a flight about to leave from New York for Beijing. Joe is older and travelling with his colleague Mel (Brent Hill); they are seated near an Englishwoman, Tessa (Geraldine Hakewell), who is knocking back the drinks. She’s feisty and witty but afraid of flying. Joe extends a comforting hand across the aisle and the story takes off.

Over five acts and across three hours, Chimerica traverses three worlds: the “Chi(na)” and “(Am)erica” of 2012; and the China of 1989. In the China of five years ago, Tessa is a demographer working for a credit card company hoping to do business there, Mel is researching working conditions in factories and Joe is going to see an old friend Zhang Lin (Jason Chong). Lin works as an English teacher and lives in an apartment with walls so thin he can hear his dying neighbour’s constant coughing. His brother Zhang Wei (Anthony Brandon Wong) stops by occasionally to argue about Wei’s son Billy, among other things. The place is full of smog and tourists and contradictions. The China of 1989 appears through Zhang Lin’s flashbacks to his student days, when he and his pregnant wife, Liuli (Jenny Wu), stood on the street, joining the pro-democracy protest. Now her ghost appears when he least expects it: sitting in the fridge or sliding out of a garbage bag.

In the America of 2012, Obama and Romney are on the campaign trail, as are Joe and Mel. Joe is increasingly distracted by the possibility that the tank man is living nearby in New York. The distraction tips into obsession as Joe prevails upon ex-girlfriends, bails up fishmongers, punches a florist, stands up Tessa, falls out with Mel, shouts at their editor, and even blackmails a senator in order to gain privileged information. Even more foolishly, he communicates some of this activity to Zhang Lin, putting him at immense risk.


Cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

Cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

Cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

The thriller, the televisual & non-people

Chimerica is vast and although it could be described as sprawling, it is too precisely plotted for that. Instead it seems televisual: the meet cute at the start, the snappy dialogue, fast pace and rapid edits. The thriller plot has been written for audiences who are in the habit of following several stories at once and who have faith that a scene of mere seconds and with no words is nonetheless significant.

To facilitate the relentless flow of images, set designer David Fleischer has left the vast stage all but empty. Williams then has the actors change the scenes by carrying on pieces of furniture and props. As in Williams’ production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (2015), scene changes can be riveting in themselves: highly choreographed and beautifully back-lit (Nick Schlieper). In contrast, the scenes proper are often staged in tableaux: characters sit at restaurant tables with their cutlery poised or stand in groups at an art gallery, holding wine glasses.

There is also a televisual sense of repetition and seriality. So many scenes take place in what anthropologist Marc Augé calls “non-places,” planes, bars, fast food restaurants and hotel rooms. The production design suggests that even our homes are becoming non-places, filled with the same blond wooden stools and silver floor lamps. Who fills these non-places? The answer, of course, is non-people, which is why Chimerica’s characters almost read as types.

In the West, there is the jaded journalist, his wise-cracking offsider and the pragmatic career woman. In the East, there is a brother who is no longer willing to pay the price of progress and another whom progress has served well. The Chinese-American diaspora varies: first-generation migrants are working menial jobs; second-generation migrants are police officers. The most recent arrival is Wei’s son Benny, educated at Harvard and employed by an oil company.

These non-people wear non-uniforms (costume design by Renee Mulder). Benny sports sneakers and bling; Joe is dishevelled in battered double denim; Mel wears brown runners and navy jackets; and Tessa has a wardrobe of pencil skirts and sheath dresses. We know things are getting serious between her and Joe not when they have sex but when she hangs out at in his apartment in a chunky sweater. The costumes are but one element of the beautiful design in which the green of a beer bottle offsets a white fridge or a red napkin provides a flash of colour in a scene of beige, blue and grey. THE SWEATS’ sound design is just as encompassing. In some scenes, the music is minimalist; in one, the thumping “Harlem Shake” kicks in, bringing the memory of the 2013 meme with it.

In the play’s penultimate scene, we flash back once more to June 4, 1989. The scene is striking: side-lit, engulfed in smoke, with people pelting across the stage. Once again, tank man appears, only this time we know who he is and how and why he came to be there. We also know what’s in his shopping bags.


Mark Leonard Winter, Gabrielle Chan, Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

Mark Leonard Winter, Gabrielle Chan, Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

Mark Leonard Winter, Gabrielle Chan, Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

About us

Like David Hare, Kirkwood has an ability to explore macro-political issues through micro-personal relations. Unlike Hare, however, she is not preoccupied with making a “state-of-the-nation” play. Instead, she realises that the only way to analyse the contemporary experience of the ‘national’ is through the international, which is why she, an English woman, has written a play about China and America’s mutual entanglement. This triangulates the relationship between the old British empire, the waning American one and the waxing Chinese one. When staged in Australia, this triangle becomes a square. We know all three of these empires and have faithfully followed both the United Kingdom and the United States into war. We have also skilfully negotiated the shift in power from the former to the latter. But what to do about China?

One of the clichés of Australian politics is that every generation rediscovers Asia and announces our need to engage with the region. It’s probably true of the performing arts too. However, with the recent success of OzAsia, AsiaTOPA and the Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (formerly Performance 4A) program as well as individual works like Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female at La Boite and Asian works in Performance Space’s Liveworks, it feels like a larger and longer-lasting change is on the horizon. This mainstage production of Chimerica—so beautifully performed, directed and designed—adds to the air of inevitability.

In the days between my seeing the play and writing about it, Premier Li Keqiang holds a press conference saying that he does not want the Asia-Pacific nations to feel compelled to choose sides between China and the US. Ostensibly reassuring, the statement has the opposite—and ominous—effect. It’s like a frontbencher telling the media that the party leader has their “full support”—suddenly you know it’s on and that the future will be here before you blink.

Sydney Theatre Company, Chimerica, writer Lucy Kirkwood, director Kip Williams, designer David Fleischer, costumes Renée Mulder, lighting Nick Schlieper, music THE SWEATS; Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, 28 Feb-1 April

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 March 2017