What became of the Tiananmen Square tank man?
Remarkably, no one seems able to answer that question.The man who became famous for standing in front of a row of tanks on June 5, 1989 — the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre — remains an almost complete enigma. No one seems to know who he was or what fate befell him after he became an iconic figure.
And that's where British writer Lucy Kirkwood's sprawling, but engrossing, Chimerica — a 2014 Olivier Award winner for best new play — picks up.
Kirkwood centres the play around the friendship of American photographer Joe Schofield (Evan Buliung) and Chinese dissident Zhang Lin (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), two men who bond over their search for the identity of the tank man. Joe has a vested interest in this — in Kirkwood's fictionalized account, he's one of the people who photographed the unknown man.
To describe the twisting plot any further would take nearly as long as the play's somewhat self-indulgent three-hour (with intermission) running time. Suffice to say that Joe and Lin's quest touches on geopolitics, the economic realities of China and America (the entangled, chimeric "Chimerica" of the title), the costs of industrialization, and the future of the planet.
It's heavy stuff, but Kirkwood cleverly wraps it up in a taut mystery. It's easy to see why she's a rapidly rising young star in the British theatre scene. Chimerica is smart and smartly written, filled with big ideas, but also with snappy dialogue and a construction that leaves viewers anxiously waiting for the next scene.
Director Chris Abraham (who also helmed another production currently running in town, PTE's Seeds) helms a production — a co-pro between the Royal MTC and Toronto's Canadian Stage — that embraces the thriller-ish qualities of the script. He moves the show at a breakneck pace, aided impressively by Thomas Ryder Payne's pulsing sound design, Deco Dawson's artful video projections, and a brilliantly constructed set by Judith Bowden that makes great use of RMTC's revolving stage to move us from scene to scene, and country to country, rapidly.
The cast of a dozen all turn in impressive performances. Buliung is solid as the somewhat bland Joe, while Sun-Hyung Lee finds a comic core in Lin.
But Kirkwood's script also provides plenty of spiky laughs, and as sharp-tongued businesswoman Tessa and newspaper publisher Frank, Laura Condlln and Ross McMillan make the most of some very good writing to deliver much-needed levity.
An epic yet snappy geopolitical thriller with a fascination with economics, Chimerica is a curious beast indeed. But it's also gripping, stimulating theatre.
Chimerica runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until March 19, and at Canadian Stage in Toronto from March 29 until April 17.