‘Chimerica’: the implication is a monstrous concoction created out of two vastly different, grotesquely mismatched species, inextricably linked by virtue of being the world’s foremost economic powers. Yes, it is around these two polestars – China and America – that the various oppositional ideologies explored in the play are arranged; but no, Lucy Kirkwood cannot be faulted for being overly simplistic, as she never allows us to rest our minds in clear cut distinctions or stereotypes. Though out of the context of the play some of the characters’ perspectives and driving ideologies might seem caricatured, they are always sufficiently subverted by a host of other characters with oppositional opinions so that we, the audience, cover in our own minds all the ground between these extremes. The lofty idealism of the main protagonist, Joe Schofield, is set against a background of brutal humour, which repeatedly uses a banal, physical reality, undercutting notions of the individual’s importance or heroism: on finding out that his colleague has been paralysed from the waist down, Mel quips, “Man, that sucks. I have to find a new racquetball partner.” The script is choc-a-bloc with sound bites, easily digested like consumer culture: “I sleep in a tupperware box and eat nothing but steamed kale.” “This is a country which has gone from famine to slim-fast in one generation.” These ideas are amplified by the revolving set which transforms into various slickly purpose-built pod-like living spaces.
The plot takes its focus from a well-known historic image of one anonymous Chinese man with what we assume to be superhuman bravery, standing in the path of a tank during the Tiananmen Square massacre. The image is shocking. This man is made miniscule in comparison to the ruthless-looking tank which he stares up at, and must know full well that this army has made no bones about killing his fellow countrymen so far that day. We read into his body language, his slightly askew posture: in this overwhelming situation, perhaps he is in a nirvana-like state, kept standing by the overwhelming power of the needs and desires of his people. A hero maybe? Kirkwood reminds us that this is not reality, but rather “a photograph of one country by another country”, specifically by America, for whom the culture of heroes is almost superstitious, entwined with the constitutional notion of individualism – “All men are created equal” and anyone can achieve great things. This image of the tank man, the visual and intellectual heart of the production, is a jumping off point for exploration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, in which the basic premise is that “photographs furnish evidence” and “appropriate the thing photographed”. Throughout the production this image is misread and used to serve the agendas of different characters, as well as the audience. A schism has occurred: we imagine photographs to be accurate depictions of the real world, but images are unavoidably ambiguous, nuanced with what we wish to see. They are dissociated from reality. Looking at the image, recognising our own visceral reaction, we, the audience, congratulate ourselves on our compassion and understanding, but our response is misdirected and in fact we have excused ourselves from truly engaging with the situation.
Tessa Kendrick, leading female protagonist, points out that the culturally imperialist American ego has projected its own perspective onto China in an unexpected way. Tessa breaks down in her business presentation, because the task she has been set is based on a false premise: that China’s rapid evolution from third-world to first-world country is necessarily tied up with an aspiration to become America. Repeatedly, we see Chinese characters play up to this assumption, wryly donning the role of naïve barbarian. Zhang Lin says to Joe Schofield of their dinner plans that he is taking them ‘Somewhere very special, I’ve been saving up, it’s called Pizza Hut’, before watching Joe’s face for a look that will be both patronising and patronised. We meet a Chinese stripper before she goes onstage for her United Nations gig. She is wearing a sequinned stars-and-stripes bikini. The implicit offstage scene is of a group of zombified delegates, swallowing a strange alternative version of their situation, egos flattered by cocaine and her feigned appreciation of their cocks and their country.