Thursday 25 July 2013

Re: Chimerica

[ALL SPOILER. This is based primarily around a discussion of Chimerica's ending. If you don’t want the ending spoilered then don’t read this until you’ve seen it]

At the end of Matt Trueman’s review of Chimerica, he rhetorically asks:

“The plot grips, the ideas engage and, for those that like it, there’s the semblance of political urgency to boot. Lyndsey Turner’s production does everything that’s asked of it with Es Devlin’s rotating cube motoring the story forwards. So yeah. What more do you want?”

And it’s where Trueman ends that I’d like to begin.

I’m not going to write about the production itself for a number of reasons (that I only saw the piece in preview, that I’m way too close to people involved, that I consequently know too much inside information, and etc.).

[Indeed, I’m deliberately publishing this now in the dead-space between the end of the Almeida run and the beginning of the West End run in order to neutralise the effect of any perceived equivocation herein as much as possible.]

If you want to read some excellent, favourable, and non-spoilery reviews I wholeheardedly recommend Megan Vaughan’s sharp (and very funny) analysis of why Chimerica is so incredibly watchable and satisfying. Catherine Love doing the business with a characteristically lyrical and smart evocation of the whole, and Dan Hutton’s best-case-scenario analysis of the piece’s politics.

And it is the piece’s politics I want to look at.

Chimerica is essentially a detective story. This is a smart move by Kirkwood. Because, let’s be honest, quite a lot of even the best new writing for the theatre is a bit floppy in the “momemtum” department. No bad thing in itself, but if you want to write popular drama that can be a hit in the mainstream, then I can’t think of many genres better than the detective story. Think about how many of the best DVD Box Sets are detective stories of some sort. And films. Having a character who really wants to find out something is a great thing for a plot. No matter how loopy the plot gets, there’s a clearly understandable and defined goal, so it’s easier to hook an audience’s attention.

In Chimerica the thing that Joe, a fictional New York photographer (played by Stephen Campbell-Moore), wants to find out is the identity of the man standing in front of the tank in the iconic photo that he took. In the play Joe is the guy who took that photo – Joe is a made up version of the five or six photographers who actually did take this shot in 1989, Kirkwood’s note at the beginning of Chimerica explains.

And – problematically – he does find out. It turns out that the man stood in front of the tank in Joe’s photo is Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), the Chinese guy who has been Joe’s Chinese Best Friend all the way through the play, who Joe coincidentally met a few years after the Tiananmen Square massacre when he returned to China maybe twenty years before the present day. Throughout, Zhang Lin has been the audience’s primary contact with the Chinese-set bits of the play. A telling measure of this is that Benedict Wong is the only Chinese actor who doesn’t play multiple roles (just as Stephen Campbell-Moore as Joe and Claudie Blakely as Joe’s bird are the only two “western” actors not to).

In flashbacks dropped in throughout the play we gradually learn Zhang Lin’s backstory that leads him to be standing in front of those tanks in the middle of the road on that day. He is a young student, recently married or engaged to a fellow student, Liuli, who has a penchant for peaches and standing inside fridges (although I think that bit is a strange flight of magical realist fancy). Gradually, as the student protest of 1989 plays out, we realise that she’s been shot. That she’s been killed. And that, in a climactic scene near the end, he’s been handed her clothes in a white plastic bag...

Part of my problem with this version of events – or this take on telling them – comes from my familiarity with Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident – a set of monologues, one of which imagines watching the man standing in front of the tanks from the Tienanmen Square massacre from the crowd. I first saw it a year ago at Forest Fringe at the Gate and was knocked out by how good it was then, performed by Thorpe just sitting in a chair reading into a microphone. I described it thus:

‘The story fixates on the white plastic bags that the man in front of the tanks is carrying (I’d never consciously noticed them before). It’s precisely this fixing on detail that lifts the writing well clear of just describing something emotive for a cheap effect. Rather, it fully re-makes your relationship with this iconic image. And ultimately it makes you think about how it affects you and everyone else ethically. It invokes molecules, distant stars and the whole universe and then up-ends the entire edifice to re-focus on “a man standing in front of a fucking tank”.’

The lines from There Has Possibly Been an Incident that encapsulate the core of the piece are these (the narrator is imagining what the man in front of the tank might want to say):

“If you know my name then everything about this becomes pointless. I'm going to be much more powerful, longer lived, whether I survive or not, as the guy who did this. Rather than a name.”

The the difficulty for me, therefore, was firstly this issue of Chimerica seeking to personalise this anonymous figure. And then, having personalised him, its making this unknowable act into something that can clearly be understood primarily as a response to romantic grief. The reason Zhang Lin stands in front of a tank could be understood to be a romantic, suicidal, nihilistic response to the loss of his loved one. A “moment of madness”. In comparison with Thorpe’s imagined anonymous, blank figure with bags of cabbage and onions standing up for something, Benedict Wong’s Zhang Lin, carrying in his bags the clothes of his dead wife, looks like nothing so much as King Lear carrying on stage the body of the dead Cordelia. A revolution becomes a family drama.

I find that problematic. Because I don’t think the revolution is about your wife. And to suggest that it is, to personalise it like that, seems to make the revolution into something personal and selfish. Something Westernised and Captialist. It reminds me (yet again) of the René Pollesch quote about wanting to talk to the capitalists about money (although it could equally be about power, or oppression) and them only wanting to tell stories about love.

I was reminded of this issue with Chimerica again reading Andy Horwitz’s brilliant account of his week at TheaterTreffen for Culturebot. Specifically, his review of Luk Perceval’s adaptation of Hans Fallada’s novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone, published in Britain as Alone In Berlin). Of which he had this to say:
“There is no need for me to recapitulate Arendt and Adorno, but if we think we can convey the scope of the Nazi horror through comprehensible narratives, we are de facto reducing the collective hypnosis of an entire nation through psychic terror on a mythological scale to a single person’s inadequate moral struggle. 
“Even within the limits of conventional narrative, Every Man Dies Alone is the opposite of insightful. It is psychically comforting, even palliative, to see a story of resistance, no matter how futile. Through empathy with the lead characters, this narrative reinforces the desire of the individual spectator to imagine that he would have behaved differently, that he too would have struggled to maintain a shred of moral outrage and resistance in the face of evil... 
“It seems to me, now, after this long and bloody 20th Century and its international legacy of genocide, the more pressing concern is not to retrospectively reaffirm our belief in individual acts of meaningless resistance but rather to undertake a rigorous examination of complicity.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think on its own terms Chimerica is a hugely successful play. It’s the terms themselves – British theatre's, Western Culture's; not Kirkwood’s – that I’m interested in questioning.

I think Kirkwood’s impulse to write a serious play, with research, about America’s relationship with China is a fine impulse (indeed, she comes across brilliantly in this interview with Time Out). And it’s interesting to compare something like Chimerica with the other serious contender for (mainstream) Play of The Year so far – Circle Mirror Transformation.

And yet still, I found something unsettling about the extent to which America seemed iron-clad against criticism compared to China. That the play runs straight through The War on Terror and only China’s record on torture is criticised concerns me. The fact that even making the comparison feels like lining up a bunch of people to tell me that China is totally evil and you can’t compare that with America, despite the fact that America throughout the 2000s was busily sticking justifications for torture into virtually every popular TV programme they made from 24 to Battlestar Galactica.

There was also the slight structural imbalance meaning that the American sections of the story, as well as having a stronger dynamic – detective story versus mopey flashback-land in China – also took up significantly more stage time. Which on one hand is fair enough – Kirkwood can write a play about whomsoever she wants with whatever ratios she wants – but on the other hand does feel slightly (and honestly only slightly) like “we” (the audience) is expected to be seeing the world through western eyes. Perhaps that point is unfair. The play is about America as well. This isn’t really that trope of putting a white character in any play/drama about somewhere foreign so “we” (an assumed white, western audience have a “sympathetic” point of contact), but it does get close at times. Minutiae of American politics are discussed, while it is entirely possible to come away from the play not actually know what sparked the Tienanmen Square protests in the first place (although, at the same time, this is also a triumph of avoiding “Whoops! Exposition!” style dialogue).

Finally, it is interesting that something which could have been a big old sprawlly mess (I use the term affectionately) has been repeatedly streamlined and is now heading into the West End to make a small number of people at the top a lot of money. I can’t help wondering if, regarding this play of compromised ideals, that meta-narrative might ultimately make all its points much more forcefully than the story it tells.


Lucy said...

Thank you Andrew! Sterling!
But for me there’s something else to articulate about the ending. Because King Lear isn’t just a story about a bonkers Dad. It is also a story about a revolution. You could in fact, rather grandly, make a play for King Lear being a story about the cultural revolution, in which youth gouges out the eyes of the past. (But I wouldn’t.) In other words, the revolution can be about your wife. It depends on how you sing it. But I agree there’s a problem with the ending, and I think you’re right that the reason is that it is uncomfortably western.
The thing is – Kirkwood’s a white westerner – and she’s hyper aware of that (where, to my mind, Lepage was not. was instead flippant and bland and blurgh). So she’s telling a cross-cultural story from a largely mono cultural milieu. She owns that, I think, rather fabulously, in the scene where the girlfriend addresses us directly as her PR employers (thus identifying us as westerners who want to ‘figure out’ china) and tells us she doesn’t know how to present “china” to us in recognizable types. That’s also a moment where the seamlessness of the production breaks. when her ‘performance’ breaks down. Where of course the fourth wall wobbles its plexiglass self into visibility at least. that, to me, is Kirkwood stuttering, gloriously, over the difficulty of telling other people’s stories. of taking them home and as you say making money out of them.
But I think Kirkwood is doing something more interesting than you intimate. She’s challenging stories. American stories. Detective stories, even. Stories where you have heroes and plots and answers and endings. Stories where you have A Guy who does An Amazing Thing. And it is normally a guy. And Joe is chasing that story because he a) believes in that story, and b) believes that he is that guy. as much as he can be in modern America as a photographer. And we are meant, aren’t we? to find his obsession with finding this individual man out of a huge group of revolutionaries particularly egotistical and short sighted and silly and, by the end, downright jaded and capitalist. He destroys everything around him in his search. He fails his friend. He destroys a family and breaks someone’s nose. He abandons his own, nascent family. He commodifies his work. He is a rank individualist in this obsessive hunt for an individual. And it stinks.
What I mean to say is that Joe believes in the single hero story. And Zhang Lin doesn’t. And I found that totally genius. There’s a moment that blew my mind, when we understand that Zhang Lin has sent Joe off on a hunt, not for the guy in front of the tank, but for the guy IN the tank. Because to ‘the chinese’ which yes is hugely problematic, HE is also a hero. that man, who was a party man, who had signed up, wore a uniform, who was eminently identifiable, did the unthinkable, and stopped his tank. Don’t get me wrong, the man with the bags is not engaged in the act of murdering his compatriots, and is therefore in a different order of ethical being. But he can also potentially survive his – completely amazing - act of heroism. But the guy in the tank knows he’s dead, the minute he stops. The moment he decides not to obey orders. That is an amazing thing to do. and jesus, I have seen that photo ten thousand times and never once thought about the bravery of the soldier. why? because I am Joe. I love a good hero, me (ME!). and an army man is a tarnished person, and part of a group and therefore not a hero and therefore I am entirely uninterested in him.

Lucy said...

[There’s MORE!]
Which makes it really depressing that Kirkwood then ends her play by giving us (Joe schmos) what we want. the answer. the individual. the ending.
because the whole thing iterated, to me, a staged dialogue between the tensions of the story of one person – AMERICA!! – crass and overly simplistic and monomaniacal, the story of a culture that is so individualistic it is imploding, and the difficulties of the story of the group – China – a culture that, currently, still refuses to allow any voices of dissent to be heard, that is so anti individualist, it is horribly repressive. Neither seems ‘right’. Both are wrong in completely different ways.
But then why? Why did she do that thing of – here he is, our HERO!! being dragged away by the evil Chinese police? America wins.
The only answer I can countenance is that, precisely because I had never thought about the guy in the tank, I would not have been satisfied with anything else. I would have felt cheated.
only… I wasn’t satisfied by this. so. hoist. petard. entire.
HowEVER - and then I shall cease filling up your cyber space I solemnly swear – what heartened me about this on reflected reflection, was that… actually, this is not just super genius chic Lucy Kirkwood riffs on China n America, folks. It seemed to me very redolently a group affair, a long, drawn out, multi layered, multi influenced, evolving thing, in a way that theatre always is, of course, but in this instance was particularly in evidence. In the importance of the set to move the action on, even. It gastrulated the collaborative ethic of the whole enterprise. there’s something endemic to theatre that also challenges the hero playwright, or hero director, or hero character, in its very bones. Often, you miss it, because damn it all, we love a good hero – a Guy to Worship – (I’m thinking Nübling, Hayders, but fill in at leisure). But here I didn’t. I did actually think – here we all are – together, pondering how to resist being sucked into being a faceless member of a repressive, normalizing group without becoming inexhaustibly egotistical, capitalist idiots, by a large group of very talented people. and we’re doing it live! brilliant!
so. yes. in the end, it was a complicated yay from me.

[there's no more]

Anonymous said...

"Because I don’t think the revolution is about your wife. And to suggest that it is, to personalise it like that, seems to make the revolution into something personal and selfish. Something Westernised and Captialist."

I think you're extrapolating here, looking for nits to criticise. The play does not suggest this. What it does suggest is the tragedy that political oppression brings, that it does affect real lives in a hugely significant way, even those of the politically-apathetic that we have both in the US/West and China; and that this can inspire people to become heroes and stand in front of a tank. There is nothing selfish about being inspired by personal loss.