The Sydney Theatre Company’s current production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is cinematic, grand to the point of overstimulation, spectacular but unenlightening. The play revolves around photojournalist Joe Schofield, played by Mark Leonard Winter, who is, in this fictive universe, one of the handful of photographers who manages to capture a picture of the universally-recognised Tank Man from the Tiananmen Square massacre. He becomes fixated on finding the individual in the photograph, and this drives the so-called progression of the play.
Chimerica concerns itself with the inertness of an image deprived of any particular context, and this anxiety permeates the play itself at every level. The play, like the protagonist, is so distracted by image — its own in particular — as to totally miss everything that matters: plot, narrative, characters. Play and playwright seem to believe that the mere desire to be world-historical is sufficient to achieve world-historicity.
The plot is eye-rollingly convenient in its neat circularity; the dialogue is slick and predictable; multiple scenes run on the logic of a soap opera but are apparently neither low-brow nor ironic. The characters, while played with skill and flair by the cast, are one dimensional and caricatured, particularly Schofield, whose creator has made no effort to render him likeable. Perhaps this is Kip Williams’ misreading: unfortunately, each character’s cartoonish exaggerations make them grating instead of memorable, and their trajectories are tragic in the worst way.
Furthermore, the political reality discussed in the play scarcely extends beyond the most unadventurous takes of the New York Times’ most regular columnists. There is no deeper truth revealed. The play’s name suggests aspirations to high-minded political synthesis; despite this posturing as thoughtful commentary, every political idea expressed is either very basic or fantastical. The play serves as pure distraction.
Kirkwood claims the play took six years to complete; given this, it would not be unreasonable to expect the play to offer more political insight. The narrative trades off truisms about China being oppressively controlling and the U.S. being feverishly egotistical and corrupt. In fact, the play seems almost totally empty of message or moral.
Nonetheless, Chimerica must be praised for its flawless finish. The lighting and effects, as well as the music, are often viscerally affecting and provoke emotional reactions through their intensity. The transitions are busy, clever, and highly entertaining, glittered and smoothed to visual perfection, if nothing else.
Sometimes one goes to see a play and leaves unable to really recount anything that happened in the intervening three or so. Sometimes one views a work of art and is unable to glean anything from it beyond its assertion that the world is profoundly complicated. Chimerica was one of those times. While the show is glitzy and flashy and impressive, the narrative is deeply frustrating, imbued at once with both endless motion and infuriating vacuity.