Review – Chimerica – Almeida Theater (transferring to Harold Pinter Theater)


It was a bit intimidating to walk into the Almeida Theater’s blogger’s evening for Chimerica not two days after going to see Strange Interlude and discover that I had signed myself up for a second three hour play in one week. Arrgh! My sleep schedule!

But I was very interested by the subject material – a view of modern China as seen by a man who’s looking for the person in the infamous “Man confronts tank at Tian An Men Square” photo. It seems that “changes in China” is quite the topic, since both the Ai Wei Wei play and Consumed were newly produced and written just this year. And for me, well, Tien An Men is at the heart of my political consciousness – it was an event that changed the course of my professional life, putting a stop to my plans to go to Beijing and ride the surging tide of what would soon be the world’s largest economy. I watched the protests day after day on TV, and had been following the rapid changes in the newspapers … and twenty-five years later it seems to have been completely disappeared by the monster nation, swallowed up by stories about pollution, worker abuses, political corruption, and the excesses of the nouveaux riches.

The tale was spun in the very movie-like Headlong way that pretty much guaranteed that you could never get bored as the central cube of the set whirled around, opened screens to show little sets inside, was covered by animated images as it spun to another setting, then carried on WHOOPS HOW ABOUT A GHOST? Lucy Kirkwood wrote the scenes in a short, television-esque style that kept us moving from Beijing to New York to an editor’s office to a strip bar to Beijing circa 1987 and so on, barely a moment to think. Most of the cast played multiple roles, except of course for leads Stephen Campell Moore (as photographer Joe Schofield), Benedict Wong (a radicalizing professor Zhang Lin) and Claudie Blakeley (marketing executive Tessa Kendrick). All of them did solid jobs with their characters, although it was odd seeing Wong back on stage so shortly after his star turn in Ai Wei Wei – a particular accent that he has really marked it as “his” performance. And there was just a tiny bit of spoken Mandarin in many of the scenes just to keep it all real (in small enough drabs that I was able to follow along but felt sure nobody was really missing all that much).

Despite the loveliness of seeing a play with so much in the now in its dialogue, with so much of very modern politics and a genuine humanity at its core, I felt that Chimerica was both too long (several scenes seemed rather pointless) and too skewed toward a white, English-speaking audience. Who really could care about someone looking to “get a story” by finding someone in a twenty-five year old photograph? Joe wants to exploit “tank man,” and in the same way Chimerica exploits its subject(s) to produce what is ultimately a fairly empty entertainment at the expense of creating a deeper understanding …something which could only have happened if the people of China were its core rather than its window dressing. Whether as immigrants, dissidents, cheerful patriotic consumers or cog in the machine of the state, there’s a lot more to China and the modern Chinese condition than this play can be bothered to discuss (perhaps because it would be too “boring” or, God forbid, “foreign” to its intended audience). Maybe the author just didn’t want to do any more research. Who knows. I’m glad, in retrospect, that this play does so much to raise the profile of the Tian An Men square massacre; but ultimately it’s a bit like a fortune cookie: sweet and digestible but only with a Westerner’s ideas of Chinese culture at its heart.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 30th, 2013. My ticket was generously provided by the Almeida.)

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3 Responses to “Review – Chimerica – Almeida Theater (transferring to Harold Pinter Theater)”

  1. natasha Says:

    Tiananmen shaped many of our consciousness. I am of an American generation that studied in Beijing just before that time.

    I agree that the premise of Chimerica (while not relating much if at all to the title, a term coined by economist Niall Ferguson) was exciting. But the play was too much about white people relating to China. The Chinese characters, even the main one, could have been much more fleshed out. (And the play severely edited).

    As a Mandarin speaker (who is not Chinese), I liked Lindsey Turner’s decision to use some spoken Mandarin Chinese language in the play. But her strategy didn’t work at all!

    The Chinese characters generally spoke one line of Mandarin; then continued in English, using their regular English accents. Immediately, I got confused: were they meant to be continuing their conversation in Mandarin, but we just hear it as English? (Keep in mind that other characters are also speaking English, in English or American accents).

    Then it becomes more confusing: two Chinese characters meet two British journalists, who also spoke English in English accents. Suddenly, the Chinese characters start speaking English in heavy Chinese accents! Whoa! That means…. um… that yes their English accents were meant to convey they’d been speaking in Mandarin this entire time. Phew! Too much for my brain to handle!

    And the American accents , although generally good, occasionally had huge mispronounciations. I dont understand why British productions continually hire only British actors for American roles. London is full of excellent professional American actors.

    I understsand they hired an accent coach, and a Mandarin coach for Chimerica. But this ‘little bit of Mandarin’ strategy; and the American accent snafus, just sliced through any sense of reality I’d built up.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      This was a really thoughtful reply. I wasn’t too bothered by them switching into English (as, while you and I could follow along I was sure very few other people could!) but as you I am bothered by the accents they have the native Chinese speakers use and what the cultural implications of these accents are.

  2. Andrew Says:

    I agree with Natasha and webcowgirl. Webcowgirl, my world too was changed by Tiananmen. I too watched the news coverage all day, for weeks. Hard to beleive Lucy Kirkwood was only a baby then.

    I too am one of many non-Chinese Americans who speak Mandarin. As someone who was working in New York in those days, the world of Chimerica did come alive for me.

    However, I felt the same way about the accents while speaking English. The guy playing the younger brother had a very English accent, while the guy playing the older brother had a bit more of a Chinese accented English. Maybe as an American, the disparity between their accents was more noticable- but it really prevented me from beleiving their characters.

    I also was confused when the younger brother started speaking heavily Chinese-accented English to the British journalist characters.

    I think for the West End run, the director should insert a few more Mandarin phrases and words into each character’s interactions, to remind us they are supposed to be speaking Mandarin.

    Also, pretty much none of Mandarin spoken by the Chinese characters was great. (Not their fault if they’re not of Chinese origin, or not of Mandarin speaking origin. But what the heck did the Mandarin coach do?). And DEFINITELY none of them spoke Mandarin with a Beijing accent. I hope better for the West End transfer.

    And I agree, the American accents needed some work. If I pay that much money to see theatre, I expect the accents to be flawless.

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