Chimerica, Almeida Theatre, London – review

Benedict Wong seems to have cornered the market in being interrogated in compact boxes centre stage. Directly after playing the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at Hampstead in Howard Brenton’s play about Ai’s arrest, he now (albeit briefly) finds himself in exactly the same situation as Zhang Lin, a teacher of English in Beijing who protests about the lack of attention paid to the city’s air pollution.

Zhang’s is one strand of Lucy Kirkwood’s story (co-produced with Headlong), six years in the writing and trimmed to a barely three-hour running time. The main narrative impetus is the search by fictional American photojournalist Joe Schofield to try to track down the now legendary “tank man” from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Joe’s quest takes place during the 2012 American presidential election campaign, and in his personal life he also becomes involved with English marketing consultant Tessa, on contract to a credit card company seeking to break into the Chinese market. Add the story of Zhang, a friend of Joe’s since his 1989 coverage, and Zhang’s own recollections of his now-deceased wife, and the big picture is a tapestry of assorted realities and illusions, personal, economic and national: the title portmanteaus the two countries’ names into a result connotative of both hybridisation and fantasy.

Es Devlin’s set consists of a huge rotating cube with several playing spaces within, revealed or concealed by sliding opaque or semi-opaque screens on to which are projected photographs with various crop marks drawn on to them, to emphasise once more that images are as susceptible to editing and interpretation as words.

Lyndsey Turner marshals as fluid a staging as possible in the circumstances, centring on Stephen Campbell Moore’s Joe but with other notables including Claudie Blakley as Tessa and Trevor Cooper stealing scenes in a number of roles including Joe’s editor. The overall effect is to subject an image to the kind of close reading which a number of David Edgar’s plays give to assemblages of words. In the end, though, it simply seems too much: there is not one final twist but three in quick succession, ranging from the staggeringly predictable to the shockingly poignant. Ultimately, Kirkwood’s point about the irreducibility of such material extends to the fabric of her own play.

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