The most famous photograph to emerge from the events of June 1989 in Tiananmen Square is that of the Tank Man.
A lone figure, laden down with bags, stands in front of a line of tanks and refuses to let them past. One version of this image is used as the starting point for Lucy Kirkwood’s new play, Chimerica. The play has transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End for a limited run after phenomenal success in its debut run at the Almeida Theatre this May.
Chimerica is a work that considers the possible consequences of pressing a camera’s shutter release button. It follows the stories of two men who experienced the events of Tiananmen Square from very different perspectives and who occasionally meet up in Beijing as friends in 2012; Joe Schofield, from America, is a photojournalist for a New York newspaper and Zhang Lin, from China, is now an English teacher who takes his students out on the roof to yell at the city of Beijing. In the play, Joe is the photographer who took the most well known version of the Tank Man photograph, but Kirkwood emphasises in the programme notes that Joe is a completely fictional creation and not intended to represent any actual person or any of the people who had captured that moment in reality.
…a rotating cube with moving walls transforms into a cramped flat…
The complexities of building a set that spans two continents, different eras, and multiple scene changes has been accomplished by Es Devlin: a rotating cube with moving walls transforms into a cramped flat, a newspaper office or the gutting room of a fish factory. The suggestion of different locations is cleverly achieved by projecting black and white photographs onto the cube, with the sprocket holes still visible and some hand-drawn cropping marks left on to emphasise the fact that the images we see in newspapers may not be the entire photo or the entire story.
The whole cast of Chimerica is exceptional, but Benedict Wong gives an incredibly powerful performance as Zhang Lin, who faces the consequences of his actions in both the past and the present after years of hiding away in his tiny apartment.
…It prompts a consideration of what censorship means to different people from different cultures…
Chimerica is an exploration of human action, reaction, and inaction. It prompts a consideration of what censorship means to different people from different cultures, and also how freedom can be a very relative concept. This is an incredibly immersive production that asks the audience to reconsider the power of a photograph and to remember that there is always more than one way of interpreting a picture.