The personal and the political become seamlessly intertwined in Lucy Kirkwood's ambitious and impressive new three-hour play Chimerica, which has transferred from the Almeida to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End.
The place is Tiananmen Square, the year is 1989. As tanks roll through Beijing and soldiers hammer on his hotel door, Joe, a young American photojournalism captures a piece of history.
We now move forward 23 years to New York 2012, Joe is covering a presidential election marred by a debate over cheap labour and outsourcing of American jobs to Chinese factories.
When a cryptic message is left in a Beijing newspaper, Joe is driven to discover the truth behind the unknown hero he captured on film. Who was he? What happened to him? And could he still be alive?
The unusual title of the play Chimerica is taken from a phrase coined by economist Niall Ferguson to indicate the global dominance of the dual country that is China and America. Indeed the play provides a genuine insight into the workings of present-day China with its severe restrictions on personal liberty and the way Western business is desperate to gain a foothold in the lucrative market. But this is no mere dull political tract, it works as a gripping thriller and newspaper drama, bristling with energy and wit in which character development is as important as the storytelling and the issues it raises.
One of the most striking aspects of this production is Es Devlin's ingenious set dominated by a large revolving cube, which turns to reveal a succession of locations of both New York and Beijing, backed by clever use of photographic projections often resembling the contact prints of news photographs giving the piece a filmic quality.
Stephen Campbell Moore precisely captures the protagonist's mix of reckless idealism and self-absorption, as well as the dogged determination of the newshound on the trail of a great story who will stop at almost nothing to get it. Trevor Cooper is bitingly funny as his tough-talking, seen-it-all editor, while Sean Gilder strikes the right note as the grizzled reporter who starts to get fed up with his colleague's increasingly dangerous obsession, and Claudie Blakly is touching as Joe's girlfriend, an English market research expert teaching companies how to make headway in Chinese business life. There is also a deeply moving performance by Benedict Wong as a memory haunted Chinese man defiantly standing up to the Chinese authorities and incurring their wrath in the process.
This then is epic theatre on an intimate scale that leaves a truly lasting impression.
Chimerica plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until Saturday 19 October 2013
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