What happened to Tank Man? Review: Chimerica

Written by Jess Bowie on 20 September 2013 in Culture
Jess Bowie reviews Chimerica, a new, insightful play about the hero of Tiananmen Square

On 5 June 1989, the morning after a brutal crackdown on protestors by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, a row of tanks was ploughing down an avenue near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Suddenly, a young man stepped into the road, bringing this column of military machines to an unexpected halt. It was a remarkable sight, not least because the man’s solitary act of heroism appeared completely spontaneous: dressed in a white shirt and black trousers and clasping a plastic bag in each hand, he seems merely to have been on his to way work, or carrying groceries home.

After a few minutes of facing down the army, ‘Tank Man’ was approached by a group of people, apparently sympathisers, and spirited away. His identity and whereabouts have remained unknown ever since. Before he vanished, however, a cameraman and several photographers who were perched on the balcony of a nearby hotel recorded the scene. Tank Man’s image not only came to define the Tiananmen massacre – soon it was adorning t-shirts and posters across the world, a potent symbol of defiance in the face of repression.

At least six photographers captured Tank Man on camera. Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica imagines there was a seventh, an American photojournalist called Joe (Stephen Campbell Moore) who, as a young snapper in Beijing, happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Over 20 years later, Joe is still in the profession and still intrigued by the everyday hero whose image he captured as a teenager. With the help of his reporter colleague Mel (Sean Gilder) and his old Beijing contact Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong) he decides to try and track him down.

What follows is in many ways a detective narrative that darts between past and present, East and West, taking in an exploration of capitalism, freedom and human rights as well as the similarities and differences between the two superpowers whose names form the play’s title.

That the plot develops at breakneck speed – it’s hard to believe the show is three hours long – owes much to the economy and precision of director Lyndsey Turner’s vision, brought to life by ES Devlin’s ingenious set design. The action takes place entirely inside, or in front of, a giant cubic structure, onto which different images are projected. What is one minute a seedy strip club in New York’s Chinatown is instantly transformed into the cabin of an aeroplane or the sterile claustrophobia of a Beijing police cell.

But Chimerica’s pace does not come at the expense of character. Joe’s mix of arrogance and impatient idealism is perfectly captured by Campbell Moore and, as Zhang Lin’s story unfolds, so Wong gives a rich, moving performance worthy of his character’s struggles against the repressive Party authorities and his own personal demons. Joe’s love interest Tess, a wry British market researcher played by Claudie Blakley, also feels fleshed out and complex; her presentation to a room of company executives about how to do business in China is a standout scene.     

The play’s main plotlines move against the backdrop of the 2012 American election – Romney’s ‘binder full of women’ gaffe gets a mention – and the decline of print and photojournalism in the age of the internet and cameraphones. There’s a note of lament in this latter theme, although the reluctance of Joe’s grouchy newspaper editor boss (Trevor Cooper) to embrace the world of online comments and ‘multiplatforms’ gives rise to some of the funniest lines.

Chimerica may have taken Kirkwood six years to complete, but not a moment of that time was wasted. By taking an image that inspired and intrigued the world, and imagining the story behind it, she gives her audiences a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching opportunity not just to see history anew but also to hold up a mirror to our own time.

Chimerica is at Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until 19 October

Tags: Issue 62, Life

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