24 Aug

We all know the photo. A lone man stands before a line of tanks. Incongruously, he holds two shopping bags.

It is immediately after the events of 15 April 1989, the day the People’s Liberation Army of China turned its guns on protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica tells the story of the American photographer who took one of the original photos and of his search for the man immortalised in the image. Did he flee to America? Is he still alive?

Kirkwood’s story is fiction, but it’s a brilliant exploration of heroism. In an age in which our vision of the hero too often reduces to someone who can deliver a cutting comeback on social media, a reminder that it might take a little more than that is invaluable.

And the power of Kirkwood’s play is that it reminds us that little more might manifest itself in many ways. We can be heroic in both what we choose to do, and what we choose not to do. The virtue of restraint, for example, might be harder to photograph, but is no less real for that.

On the night I saw this production at New Theatre, there were technical difficulties, but this didn’t hide the brilliant performances that director Louise Fischer has elicited from her cast. Oliver Burton as the American photographer powerfully portrays both the man’s charisma and his disturbing myopia. As Zhang Lin, a Chinese teacher of English in contemporary Beijing, Jon-Claire Lee is magnificent, presenting a rich emotional palette, ranging through light-hearted resilience, and seemingly infinite patience, to chronic despair. Enoch Li and Liz Lin play Zhang Lin’s younger self and his wife with engaging charm. Jasmin Certoma’s English woman abroad is a wonderful study in the challenges of genuine engagement in a world that can seem far too big for the individual to make an impact. Alice Livingstone shines in several cameos, as a prickly secretary to assured elected representative. Similarly, Katrina Chan splendidly inhabits several roles, portraying both vulnerability and an inspiring feistiness. Les Asmussen’s newspaper boss is beautifully rich, with space enough for both parody of media moguls and genuine insight into the complexities of the business of selling the truth.

Back to those technical difficulties: that they made so little difference suggests, that for theatre to be truly engaging, you simply need a great script and great cast. Easy.

Paul Gilchrist

Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood

New Theatre until 10 Sept

image by Chris Lundy

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