It was an epic experience; all about the story, constantly pushing on and tickling our senses in a way that you’d think only a film would. Is this a new angle for stage writing? Does Chimerica, for all its ‘epicness’, open new doors here?
Perhaps it’s not necessary. Theatre is commonly appreciated for its ability to sustain interest while simply chewing apart small moments, exploring the smallest of ideas. It's a celebrated space for discussion and subtleties. But, if nothing else, the grand-scale, thriller-esque nature of Chimerica has to be what has delighted audiences here, and internationally.
I suppose what makes this style less sustainable for the company, and more of a novelty, would be the big budget ‘feel’ of the show, which is only achievable due to the sheer number of bodies on stage. Thirty-two to be precise. And twenty of those bodies were made up of (unpaid) NIDA students, all of whom are embarking on their nine-month Diploma of Musical Theatre. Having now seen the students' contribution, and the presence they brought to this show, it’s important to acknowledge that they probably should have been paid. This seems clear given that they employed their skills as singers in the show on multiple occasions - both in solo performances and in unison. They were by no means just filling space on the stage. They were not simply part of the set, or just warm props, as it were. They had a material impact on the show, both in terms of how the story was told and the way in which it was presented. We'll never know, but I don't think the production would have succeeded without them.
Of course, It’s a great opportunity for them, regardless of monetary payment, and an experience that I’m certain they will treasure for the rest of their lives. But this is probably a stunt that the Sydney Theatre Company cannot be pulling forever. It is ethically unsound and probably disrupts the students' studies without recompense. Further - it comes across as dissonant, possibly even hypocritical, to stage a play about the human rights abuses, and tyrannical approach of the Chinese mega-state, only to do so by employing people without paying them. I’ll stop now.
China is a character in Chimerica. Aside from the Tiananmen Square massacre being at the core of the play’s events, writer Lucy Kirkwood examines the distrustful symbiotic relationship between China and America, and she also brings a British perspective in ‘Tessa” - an expert in marketing and consumption, who is investigating trends in Chinese society. Kirkwood unflinchingly deals with the issues of military suppression in China, and the dangers of its fast-moving economic growth. At the same time, China doesn’t feel foreign. This is achieved by setting at least half of the play in China, and giving voices to characters who live there. They are written endearingly, and are in some ways are more likeable than the lead American character, Joe. The story weaves love, the importance of family, and the desperation of survival around with wit and sincerity. Importantly, actors of Asian heritage are given the opportunity to play lead roles in this show, and to do so for an audience that would rarely see their faces on the mainstage. Kirkwood’s story possibly holds the ambition to force a western audience to consider the relevance of China and its omnipresence in contemporary life.
While, Chimerica is a show about the evolving nature of the US/China relationship, it’s also about much more than that. It's about the search for a courageous student who stood up to the forces of the state, and about a photojournalist’s obsession with uncovering the truth of an event that he thinks will bring him peace and hero-status. It’s about the importance of heroism, and the desire to be remembered and to “tell the truth to the world”. This might appear a little messy, and a little try-hard, but I can assure you that the production is slick, exciting and addictive. The scenes in Chimerica are played at a break neck pace. The focus throughout the entire production is to tell the story in the most efficient way possible. Everything is fast-paced, and this is only enhanced with the scene changes being achieved by cast and crew literally sprinting on, setting the scene and running off before the lights come up. At interval, you’re left wanting more, and wanting it faster. In that sense, it felt like I was binging on a long-form TV series. Its sheer epic-ness was a given, and accepted, and you were excited to see what the show would come up with next. Chimerica is exciting for the sole reason that it actively defies the idea that there are limitations in theatre.
Despite the speed with which the play weaves its story, the characters are fleshed out, and with a running time of just under three hours, there is plenty of room for development. All the roles are embodied by the actors with precision and nuance, even though the characters are written differently to your average stage type. They felt like something from an Aaron Sorkin film - with heroism, big dreams and quixotic quests at the core of each of the characters’ ambitions. The lead character of Joe has an unwavering objective throughout the show, he’s not muddied by talk and the opinions of other characters. He’s passionate, and singularly devoted to his quest to find the real-life tank man.
Geographically, the play jumps around constantly. Some characters are New York based (be it in the apartment, in the office, the gaol, brothel, or a Williamsburg restaurant), and some are in Beijing (another apartment, another cell, on the streets). The play also spans time, and does so in one of the most effective and non-naff ways that I’ve ever seen. Flashbacks further the story without being sentimental or kitsch.
Outside of the writing, the production as whole was stunning. Kip Williams has delivered a sensational show that truly captivates with every passing minute. His choices in staging are bold, and decidedly theatrical, which nicely juxtaposes the filmic nature of the writing. The design by David Fleischer is spare and evocative, and assists with grounding the action in each new place. The main cast are strong and dynamic without exception. Mark Leonard Winter is brilliant, and Brent Hill and Jason Chong are absolutely excellent. However, the show is made twice as strong as a result of its incredible ensemble. Williams has placed the story at the centre of the show, and used his NIDA-student chorus to brilliant effect, for backgrounded action, spacing and scene changes - and these were all infinitely interesting.
It was an epic experience. And I was hooked from the first word.