In a recent BBC report on the violent unrest in Cairo, the journalist described a man standing in front of a row of tanks “like Tiananmen Square”. And as we live through what is clearly momentous change in the Middle East, Lucy Kirkwood’s superb new play looks back at another period of seismic shift: 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, but also the year crowds of unarmed Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square were gunned down by the military.
The photograph of a lone Chinese man refusing to budge from the path of a tank became an iconic image: a David-and-Goliath symbol. But who was he and what happened to him? In Kirkwood’s epic play (transferred from the Almeida), a fictitious American photojournalist, Joe, embarks on a quest to find him. What follows has the grip of a thriller, but also grapples with vast global issues, with the complex relationship between China and America, with the role of the global media, with idealism, ethics and compromise.
Admirably, though, Kirkwood comes at her huge political themes through a vivid and detailed personal story. Centre stage are Joe (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his Chinese friend in Beijing, Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). Campbell Moore makes Joe both likeable and infuriating as he doggedly sticks to his pursuit of “Tank Man”, no matter the cost. And Wong is outstanding as Zhang Lin, his easy-going façade gradually cracking as the past comes back to haunt him and he embarks on a reckless path. Both men were present that fateful day in 1989 on different sides of the camera lens, both are idealists and their contrasting fates, as they revisit the past, demonstrate the way their respective countries have changed.
Around them revolve other wittily portrayed individuals: an embattled newspaper editor (Trevor Cooper), a dog-eared reporter (Sean Gilder), a consumer expert on the vast and tantalising Chinese market (Claudie Blakley) and Zhang Lin’s increasingly distressed brother (David K.S. Tse). Each brings a new angle to this richly layered drama. It is staged (in a co-production with Headlong) with nimble brilliance by Lyndsey Turner on Es Devlin’s revolving cuboid set, which niftily uses projections not only to zip across continents, but also to illustrate the way images are edited.
There are a few themes too many here and some points elbow their way in awkwardly. But no matter: this is a dazzling, thoughtful, wonderfully ambitious drama that, in a world saturated with imagery, considers the truths behind one picture.