June 4, 1989. Thousands of Chinese protestors had been engaged in weeks of demonstrations in Beijing following the death of the former General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, a leader who symbolised anti-corruption and political reform. One rally in Tiananmen Square in May was said to have drawn around 1.2 million protestors.
From the early hours of the morning, 300,000 troops belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired on civilians and students around Tiananmen Square. To this day, no official death toll has been released, with estimates ranging from several hundred to thousands.
On the following day, an unidentified man stood on his own in a street, blocking a line of 17 tanks east of Tiananmen Square on the Avenue of the Eternal Palace. Dressed in a white shirt and holding a shopping bag in each hand, the man – who’s since come to be known as ‘Tank Man’ – was resolute for several minutes in his efforts not to allow the tanks to pass, even climbing atop one momentarily. Eventually, he was pulled away by a bystander.
Tank Man has never been identified and his fate remains unknown, but the image of him standing in front of the tanks is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, a figure of resistance and a crucial reminder of the pro-democracy movement so thoroughly suppressed by Chinese authorities. Even now, the government of China attempts to erase any record of the Tiananmen Square Massacre it can. But the image of the Tank Man, captured by a handful of photographers standing on different floors of the adjacent Beijing Hotel, is a singular record for the entire world of a moment that transpired in the Chinese capital almost 27 years ago. It’s arguably one of the greatest illustrations in living memory of the saying ‘A picture paints a thousand words’.
As a student, British playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, was fascinated by the image of Tank Man. Her fascination ultimately led to her play Chimerica, which has just opened at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in a production by Sydney Theatre Company. The term ‘Chimerica’ is a portmanteau combination of the words ‘China’ and ‘America’ created by economic historians Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick to reference the intertwined economies of the two countries. It’s also an allusion to ‘chimera’ – the fire-breathing monster in Greek mythology that was part goat, part lion and part serpent.
Kirkwood’s Chimerica tells a story of fictional characters connected to these real-life events. Joe Schofield (Mark Leonard Winter) is a young American photojournalist who captures Tank Man’s historic moment of resistance from his nearby hotel room. In 2012, more than two decades later, Schofield returns to Beijing, learning from his long-time friend in China, Zhang Lin (Jason Chong), that Tank Man may not only have survived the massacre but, in fact, have started a new life in New York.
Schofield embarks on an obsessive search for Tank Man with the outwardly-shared intention of unmasking and celebrating the hero of the Tiananmen Square massacre (though, truthfully, hoping to recapture past glories). At the same time, Lin continues to wrestle with the ongoing trauma he suffers as a result of his own experiences in Tiananmen Square. On top of that, he’s alarmed by the death of his neighbour, which was the result of exposure to high levels of air pollution. His efforts to generate open discussion of pollution levels – an issue about which the Chinese government is highly sensitive – are met with authoritarian hostility not on the scale of the 1989 events, but nonetheless disturbing.
Chimerica is a piece that examines the difficult relationship between the USA and China (or, as Kirkwood describes them, the superpower of the 20th century and the potential superpower of the 21st century respectively). There’s the society where so much information is filtered that it’s often near impossible for its citizens to know the truth, and there’s the society so saturated with information that it’s difficult to arouse public engagement in a cause. There’s the society whose government is determined to suppress important truths, and then the other, which is selective with what it wants revealed as truth. It’s a compelling tale played out in a production of tremendous quality.
Director Kip Williams has taken Kirkwood’s wonderfully written text and crafted a production that is ambitious and majestic in its scale. On the expansive Roslyn Packer Theatre stage, 12 principal cast members are joined by an ensemble of 21 NIDA students incorporated to create the sense that we’re actually witnessing an epic film. Physical set pieces are scarcely used throughout the performance, but Williams has ensured such an effective use of the stage space in each scene that there’s never a feeling that this impressive stage is wasted. Ensemble members in Chimerica are, at one point, a choir, while donning the guise of dancers (or, perhaps more accurately, movers) on other occasions. Their appearance on stage in the show’s opening moments as ‘Tank Men’ makes for a highly evocative and lasting image. The effect of each scene, large and small, is heightened by Nick Schlieper’s beautiful lighting design and wonderfully underscored by The Sweats’ soundscape.
At the centre of the piece is a principal cast among the best we’ve seen on stage in Sydney so far this year. As Schofield, Winter never falters in his portrayal of the photographer, who’s initially affable and likeable but, as time progresses and his relentless pursuit of the Tank Man’s identity – regardless of the escalating stakes – continues, we lose patience with him. In the role of Chinese activist Zhang Lin, Chong delivers a performance of great integrity. As his life story unfolds before our eyes, revealed as profoundly sad, Chong brings great depth to his characterisation, making Lin an enormously compassionate character. Tony Cogin gives the role of Schofield’s newspaper chief, the hard-nosed and hard-edged Frank, grit and a no-BS attitude. As Mel Stanwyck, Schofield’s close colleague, Brent Hill is another strong presence and, Geraldine Hakewill ensures British business executive Tessa Kendrick is multi-dimensional.
Two of the most crucial roles in Chimerica are Zhang Lin as a young man (played by Charles Wu) and his fiancé, Liuli (Jenny Wu), and each performer is impeccable, helping the audience to appreciate the human toll of Tiananmen Square and its lasting scar on both the nation and the world.
Chimerica is a powerful and poignant piece of theatre that, like the image on which it’s based, is a crucial record of one of the most senseless tragedies in recent history. Not only a reflection of the two nations and the politics that drive them, this is a story that forces audiences to look at people and events through a different lens, to see how much can still make sense when the viewpoint is entirely different. In the world of today, such an exercise can only be a good thing.
CHIMERICA – SEASON DETAILS
Playing until 1 April
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay)
Tickets: Saturday evening $105, Adult $99, Seniors cardholder $90, Concession $79, Under 30 $77
Box Office: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au