Review: Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood, at the Almeida theatre (a Headlong co-production)

Photo Jeff Widener / AP / Press Association Images

Photo Jeff Widener / AP / Press Association Images

From Wikipedia: Chimerica is a neologism coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick describing the symbiotic relationship between China and the United States. In truth, Lucy Kirkwood’s new play, ambitious, incisive and complex, has much in common with the legendary chimera, a creature made with parts from various animals. The play, similarly, wants to be many things (political, character driven, suspenseful, probing the big picture and the tiny details) and in a wondrous deeply moving way it succeeds.

The play spans three decades, starting at a hotel off Tiananmen square in 1989. Three characters take centre stage: an american journalist, a chinese teacher, an english marketing researcher. Colleagues, bosses, relatives, acquaintances, politicians, the authorities swarm around them. At the heart of it a quest,  with press freedom, people’s souls and safety at stake. In fact, this is a story where the stakes are always high: whether it’s friendship, love, morals, livelihoods, nothing is trivialised. There are no perfect choices. Holding onto the moral high ground becomes a sin in its own right.

Stephen Campbell Moore as Joe Schofield blends stubborn conviction, good intentions and intelligence in a winning, challenging performance. In Benedict Wong’s Zhang Lin, the minute and the immense collide, as he becomes the heart of a very ordinary struggle against extraordinary circumstances. Claudie Blakley’s Tessa defies expectations and her performance is unshowy and precise. Trevor Cooper, in a variety of roles but most notably as Frank, gifts us with fast articulate humour as well as gravitas and Andrew Leung’s performance can run the spectrum from wide eyed innocence to a rotting soul with alarming ease.

Lyndsey Turner’s direction achieves a high degree of fluency, as much a mean for the story to progress as a statement for interlocking complicated relationships. In a box of a set (design by Es Devlin), where china is adjoining rooms with america, the world is spinning and people stay still, spin with it or try to walk against it. In the end, they find and miss each other, fight for good while hurt and blood is running down the streets and across oceans. After three hours and ten minutes, the last scene left me hopeful and teary in equal measures.

Update 27/5: I jotted down some additional thoughts on Chimerica. Not strictly a review, but possibly more interesting for that matter.

2 responses to “Review: Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood, at the Almeida theatre (a Headlong co-production)

  1. As a Greek person, I’m sure you thought about how director Lindsey Turner used the Mandarin Chinese language in Chimerica.

    I’m glad she tried to integrate Mandarin into the play, but it didn’t work for me at all.

    Most Chinese characters spoke a few words of Mandarin. Then they continued in English, with English accents. I was disconcerted. Were these English accents in English meant to signify they were still speaking in Mandarin? Especially as the other characters are also speaking English, in English or American accents.

    Then two Chinese characters, as they meet two British journalists, suddenly switch accents their accents from English accents, to heavy Chinese accents in English!

    I’m sure most English people did not notice. But perhaps non-English people did? It just didnt work for me.

    I feel that when dealing with different languages, in an English language play, one should be more creative.

    • Maybe because I can hardly tell accents apart, this didn’t bother me as much. There is a necessity for the audience to understand what the actors are saying and it was clear that, some times, they were meant to talk chinese. But the switch, or convention, didn’t bother me.

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