Nothing if Not Self-Aware: Jonathan Dunk reviews ‘Chimerica’, a Play by Lucy Kirkwood

Chimerica, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Kip Williams. Sydney Theatre Company

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica. Photo © Brett Boardman

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is an immense historical epic spanning, continents, decades, and genres. Its structural centre is the relationship between Joe, an American photographer, (Mark Leontard Winter) and Zhang Lin, a Chinese dissident (Jason Chong) who frustrates and abets the former’s fixation upon the ‘story’ behind the iconic ‘Tank Man’ photograph twenty years after Tiananmen. There’s a strange distance in this structure: the image acquires its iconic poignancy in the context of its history, in the force of the principles and ideas for which an unarmed student defies the mighty edifice of state power at all costs. Here, however, the subject is less the symbol itself than its translation-loss, as Joe pursues the ‘Tank Man’ through the back-channels of undocumented immigration it becomes clearer that his obsession articulates an unease with the moral limitations of his own privilege. Joe’s value-system, a capitalist individualism displayed through lavish ensemble scenes illustrating American political functions, cannot explain humble self-sacrifice. The virtue of Leonard Winter’s performance is how deeply unlikeable his conventionally ‘heroic’ photographer becomes.

In contrast to the extremely visual energy of the American scenes, much of the Chinese narrative occurs in dream and reverie as the audience moves through Zhang Lin’s memories. Given the importance of cultural difference and misunderstanding at key junctures in the plot, I expect this disjunction between an aggressively vivid, fast paced American reality, and ethereal visions of Chinese culture is quite deliberate. However, in tandem with other aspects of the production it creates an unsettling invocation of the old cliché of the inscrutable or exotic Asian. The direction’s filmic quality, moreover, has strong inclinations towards the literal, which prevent this uncanny quality from being interpretable as an admission of cultural limitation.

It’s often visually compelling, and doubtless the American/Chinese cultural axis is marked by significant culture clash, but I left the theatre uneasy. We’re no longer limited to a reductive or essentialist view of cultural difference. Even if we were, a play about Tiananmen emphasizing an American’s inability to understand it would still be an awkward approach. I think the production’s fascination with the Tank Man’s act of sacrifice stems from the particular conditions of its politics. Both the American and Chinese aspects of the narrative prominently feature debates over the conflict between principle and profit, and the ambivalence of this dialectic leaves one with the sense that this play’s intellectual structure doesn’t extend much beyond conventional middle class aspirations, or the American dream, if you like. This is interesting, and from what I could tell of the opening night’s audience, highly resonant. However, between the sub-plot involving the charismatic executive Tessa – played ably by Geraldine Hakewell – attempting to use iconic images of the Chinese poor to sell credit cards, and the mystery plot’s eventual dénouement – one can’t help feel that there’s something appropriative about this play. Zhang Lin’s narrative finally seems to argue that there are only personal motives, it translates the Tank Man’s extraordinary act of political, and principled sacrifice, into an advertisement for bourgeois values. As a statement about the slippage of global exchange, this is interesting, as a reflection of the Tiananmen atrocity, it seems to lack empathy.

Mark Leonard Winter and Jason Chong in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica.
Photo © Brett Boardman

Chimerica is nothing if not self-aware. Explaining his compulsion in a reflexive authorial monologue Joe explains that martyrs don’t cut it anymore – they’re passé, we need a positive story, a hero to teach us about atrocities elsewhere without making us too uncomfortable. Perhaps this says more about the modern theatre audience than it does about this particular play, but even through Leonard Winter’s self-aware performance this comes a little too close to indifference. The most overtly critical moment in the drama occurs when Tessa pitches a campaign, and – for reasons beyond dramaturgic sense – decides instead to criticize the entire endeavour. If this was a spark of political conscience however, it soon devolves into the platitudes that ‘we’re not defined by our work, and we should all just try to be nice’; as though such definition were not a luxury afforded to certain kinds of work in certain parts of the world.

We learn that her version of ‘being nice’ means moonlighting for a protest organisation while she hawks American Express nine-to-five. This is a minor detail; but it emphasizes the substance of this production’s politics: no activist group worth its salt would accept the labor of a corporate executive, and that’s not how people react to being pepper-sprayed.

The strangeness of this dynamic becomes more acute if we spatialize the curation of this performance: an audience in Sydney trying to approach Chinese culture and history through an English playwright’s idea of American politics. This uncomfortable dynamic is magnified by the play’s tenuous approach to questions of representation. Jason Chong performs his role with dignity and intelligence, but the play only seems interested in his character’s loss, rather than the ideas for which he fought. Add this to the relatively small number of Asian actors in this large cast, the occasionally orientalising twangs of The Sweats’ soundscape, and the uncomfortable proportion between Mandarin and broken English in the dialogue, and one can’t but feel this isn’t the way we should be representing cultural difference anymore.

There are approximately one million Chinese Australians, and plenty of them work in the arts, and if you want to encounter something more like the reality of Chinese experience I suggest you read the lively writing published by Peril or Mascara, or the poetry of Kim Cheng Boey, or the novels of Brian Castro. Looking farther afield, the superb protest poetry and criticism of Liu Xiabao – one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests who remains in incarceration today – memorialises the terror of Tiananmen without reducing it to a theatre of western anxieties.

 – Jonathan Dunk

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Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review,Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

Tickets to Chimerica can be obtained at https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2017/chimerica