Monday, July 1, 2013

London Theatre High Points: Two New English Plays

Elizabeth Chan, Benedict Wong and David K.S. Tse in Chimerica

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, which just finished up a run at London’s Almeida Theatre and is relocating to the West End, is constructed as a political mystery in which, thirteen years after Tiananmen Square, an American photojournalist named Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) tries to hunt down the unknown Chinese man with two shopping bags in his hands who faced off one of the tanks. The “Tank Man,” an iconic figure of the protest-turned-slaughter, was the real historical figure Kirkwood began with (just as John Logan began with an authentic literary-historic footnote, the meeting of the models for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in a London bookshop, in Peter and Alice). In her otherwise fictional script, Joe, only eighteen at the time, is one of several people who immortalized him, in a photograph that he snapped from the balcony of his hotel room. So the play is also about the power of the photograph and the many ways in which it can be reinterpreted and manipulated. And it’s an exploration of life in a totalitarian state, of the frightening speed of China’s industrial progress, and of the bizarre relationship between China and the west, represented here by both the U.S. and Britain: the main female character, Tessa Kendrick (Claudie Blakley), who becomes Joe’s lover, is an English market researcher whose specialty is counseling western companies that seek to expand into China. (Kirkwood borrowed the title from Niall Ferguson’s book The Ascent of Money.) The play, which is set at the time of the 2012 presidential election but includes flashbacks to 1989, is also a study of heroism and compromise. It’s insanely ambitious, flawed and overlong. Yet it’s a true political drama, thoughtful and complex, and in Lyndsey Turner’s production one of the most exciting evenings I’ve spent at the theater in the last few years.

The play uses Joe and Tess and a third major character, Joe’s English-teacher friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong) – whom he visits in Beijing and who inadvertently plants the idea of tracking down the Tank Man by suggesting that he may be alive and living in New York – to suggest different political points of view. But Kirkwood’s dramatic instincts are far too sharp and her vision far too layered to make them fixed symbols. In Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, a loathsome play that received baffling kudos in its recent London premiere, the characters (a Pakistani-American lawyer, his white wife, his black co-worker and her Jewish husband), gathered at a dinner party, are essentially representatives of their various ethnicities, presenting position papers. Joe, Tess and Zhang Lin are dynamic, conflicted characters whose arcs cross-hatch the mystery of the Tank Man’s identity to create an intricate dramatic structure.

The Tank Man photograph
Joe, still unsettled and restless in his early forties, seizes on the story of the Tank Man as a way to bring meaning to his life; though he’s shot many powerful photographs, he despairs that the technology that has filled the world with cell-phone snaps has diluted the potency of the photographic image. But his obsessive search for the Tank Man, in which he involves his reluctant editor, Frank (Trevor Cooper), and his journalist pal Mel (Sean Gilder) – the publication that employs all three of them seems to be a slightly fictionalized version of The New York Times – reveals his perceptual limitations and even the limitations of his commitment to the heroism he sees in the Tank Man’s story. He champs at the bit when Frank orders them to close down the story because of the Chinese interests of the corporation that owns the paper; he continues to pursue it, operating as a sort of rogue reporter. Yet he’s not above blackmailing a senator (Nancy Crane) who’s almost certain of an important appointment in Obama’s second term, in order to secure classified information about the whereabouts of the man he’s zeroed in on as the Tank Man. His aggressive investigative methods result in the arrest of a pair of illegal immigrants, a florist and his wife, living in New York’s Chinatown, and his story makes him so self-involved that he ends up betraying, in different ways, both Zhang Lin and Tess. And though he gets on his high horse when, early in their acquaintance, Tess wants to buy one of his Chinese photographs for a credit card company image (she sees it as a pastoral scene and misses its social import: that the children in it are swimming in a polluted river), he ends up putting up his best shots, including the Tank Man photo, in an expensive gallery show. Moore (who played the younger of the two teachers in the stage and film versions of Alan Bennett’s great The History Boys) gives a beautifully nuanced performance, though I think Kirkwood errs in turning Joe into such a schmuck. It’s overkill, and some of her charges against him are unconvincing: I didn’t buy the blackmail scenario, or the fact that he and the Chinese florist (David K.S. Tse) come to blows.

Tess’s trajectory is the opposite of Joe’s. When she first meets Joe and Mel on a flight to Beijing, Mel is offended by what she does professionally and gets her all wrong. (One pattern in Chimerica is that assumptions of all sorts are unfailingly proven to be erroneous.) He dismisses her as right-wing (she’s not) and her marketing methodology as a series of unhelpful generalizations (they’re not). Once she becomes involved with Joe, she pushes back against his liberalism, which she finds vague and condescending. Nonetheless, the information she gleans from the Tank Man story and his connection to Zhang Lin gets to her, and she’s too smart and too reflective to pretend she can’t see the shark-infested waters right underneath the ship she’s been hired – free-lance, on a six-month contract – to steer her client into. Kirkwood has written an amazing monologue for the character in which, in the midst of making her presentation to her client, she has a kind of professional meltdown. At first her depiction of the Chinese consumer culture is infuriating, especially when she uses the bags in the Tank Man’s hands in Joe’s photo as an economic signifier (“The Tank Man . . . has been shopping!”). But she can’t restrict herself to the job she was asked to perform; the material in her hands is too complex for the optimistic business profile she’s expected to provide, and she ends up undermining it:
[T]his work, its fine, but it’s – it’s an unfocused image, the edges are blurry, it’s not accurate, not precise, not yet . . . so you’re about to get into bed with someone you don’t really understand which is, it just seems a bit . . . lunatic, because, you know, this is the future. It’s the next hundred years. And we don’t understand. And I think that might be a problem.
Kirkwood overstates Tess’s transformation, just as she overstates Joe’s: you don’t buy her winding up, in her final scene, getting pepper-sprayed at an Occupy protest. But the character is fascinating, and Claudie Blakley, a fine, understated actress, does her full justice. Fans of Gosford Park will remember Blakley as Mabel Nesbitt, the middle-class girl who marries an aristocrat and is constantly judged (and found wanting) by his set, and I was fortunate enough to see her as Varya in the National Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard two summers ago. Both those roles were women whose vulnerabilities are clearly visible; Tess is much tougher, so Blakley is playing against what I would have said was her salient quality, her delicacy, and her Tess comes apart in very different ways than Mabel and Varya did.

Stephen Campbell Moore as Joe
The character for whom we have the most sympathy is Zhang Lin (movingly played by Wong). As Kirkwood reveals slowly in the course of the play, Lin lost his pregnant wife, Liuli (played by Elizabeth Chan, a strikingly beautiful actress with a mesmerizing presence), during the events of 1989, and he has never recovered. The refrigerator in his tiny apartment is a symbolic part of the story of their courtship, and when he’s alone her ghost crawls out of it. (It’s a fair guess that no one who sees Chimerica is likely to forget this particular theatrical image.) Silent as it is, her inescapable specter – desperately, he sells the refrigerator, but he still can’t get rid of her – moves him to activism that he didn’t imagine himself capable of; he’s compelled to make himself worthy of her memory. So when his next-door neighbor (Sarah Lam) dies of lung cancer as a result of the industrial smog in the Beijing air, he writes an article about it and sends it to Joe, hoping he can get it published. The censors catch it, of course, and Lin is hauled in for questioning; terrified, he’s about to sign a form denouncing his own action when Liuli’s ghost steps out of a locker behind his interrogator, and, stirred once again, he make a biting satirical comment instead that results in torture. Eventually he becomes a protester with the megaphone in one of Beijing’s parks, though his behavior puts him under government surveillance, threatens the factory job his brother (Tse) holds outside the city, and, in the last moments of the play, sends Lin to prison.

Cutting the play would strengthen the text, but at three hours it doesn’t feel long: Turner’s production, its scene shifts scored to techno music, moves like wildfire. Es Devlin’s brilliant set is a rectangle on a constantly moving revolve that suggests an enormous series of locations – there are thirty-eight scenes – through a combination of strategies. Some playing areas are cut into the structure (like the hotel room from which Joe photographs the Tank Man at the beginning of the play); sometimes Devlin and Turner juxtapose two locales by using the interior and exterior simultaneously, as when Joe, at a café, talks on the phone to Frank, who’s in his office. Projections on the rectangle tell us that, for instance, we’re boarding a plane; they also operate as Brechtian titles, identifying dates, and most importantly they impose the look of photographic negatives, marked up with red arrows, onto the action. (The precision of Tim Lutkin’s lighting is a crucial element in the effectiveness of the stagecraft.) The play is extremely cinematic, not only in its multiple scene shifts but also in the way Kirkwood moves back and forth between Joe’s and Zhang Lin’s stories in the second act, a kind of ironic, dialectical intercutting.

The mystery at the heart of Chimerica is worked out not just cleverly but resonantly. The story of the photograph of the Tank Man turns out to have not just one unexpected twist but two; I won’t give them away, since I was completely blindsided by both and, as the play begins what I hope will be a long theatrical life beyond the Almeida, I would like other theatregoers to be as surprised as I was. Joe’s inability to read the signs in his own picture is more damning, finally, than any of the charges the play trumps up against him; I’d say that it and that gallery show are perhaps all that Kirkwood needed to make the point about his short-sightedness. The play seizes your imagination. Kirkwood is a major new voice.

Jason Barnett, Will Adamsdale and Matthew Steer in The Victorian in the Wall

Though Lyndsey Turner also co-directed The Victorian in the Wall, which closed a sold-out run in the small space upstairs at the Royal Court a few weeks ago (the final stop in an English tour that began in March at the Bristol Old Vic), this show resides at the other end of the theatrical spectrum from Chimerica. It’s performed by an ensemble of five actors – including the playwright/co-director, Will Adamsdale, who credits his fellow performers with the script’s development – on a floor taped out to indicate the rooms in a Victorian flat in a gentrified London neighborhood that a couple in their thirties, Guy (Adamsdale) and Fi (Melanie Wilson), have recently moved into and are in the process of renovating. Boxes and assorted paraphernalia are piled upstage; on a stage-right table with an office lamp craned over it are various props. There’s a piano stage left that one of the company members, Chris Branch, plays to accompany the handful of songs. The style of the production is improvisational theatricalism, part Our Town, part thirties-era radio drama. To suggest a ceaselessly noisy neighbor dog, Jason Barnett holds up a window frame and barks. Fi has been out of the country for work – leaving Guy, a sometime writer who’s supposed to be finishing a teleplay for a children’s program, to let in the builder (Branch) Fi has hired to perform the “knock-through” that will give them more room and restore the original look of the flat. To register her imminent return, Wilson circles the stage, training a flashlight on first a model airplane and then a model cab. The sound of the knock-through provides a percussive background for many of the scenes, and when the process goes disastrously awry (for reasons too complicated to explain here), the company pulls up the masking tape on the floor, magnifying the effect with a mike. Wilson shifts into the role of a nineteenth-century music-hall star with a modest costume change and, paper wings fixed to her back, adopts the role of a wasp flying affectlessly through the space. At one point Branch, Barnett and the fifth member of the ensemble, Matthew Steer, provide back-up for Guy’s musical promise to get organized one of these days while manipulating compost lids – figuring out how to compost is one of the many tasks Guy has not yet gotten around to mastering – as if they were singing Muppets.

The Victorian in the Wall is a nutty musical fairy tale built around a romantic comedy. The most evident influence is Woody Allen, both in the nonchalant tone applied to absurdist farce and in the fanciful nature of the narrative, yet the play is definitively English. Guy is a ne'er-do-well who wears a t-shirt bearing the motto “Just Do It” but can’t manage, in fact, to do anything. He and Fi met at university and became a couple years later after they saw each other at a reunion, and their relationship, arrived at through a kind of hipster casualness, is so undefined that – as Fi has begun to see – it’s essentially shapeless. They never quite got married and now, as Guy expresses it, they’ve missed their “marry-by” date. What brought them together are presumably their shared leftist attitudes, but in fact she’s pragmatic – with some sort of well-paying “third sector” job that he doesn’t really know the nature of (and, after all this time, he’s too embarrassed to ask) – and has a set of expectations and increasingly she finds his inactivity and lack of responsibility exasperating. He was a free spirit, perhaps, at twenty-five; at thirty-five, he’s just an educated, well-intentioned layabout without the attention span to follow through on anything. (Adamsdale makes him lovable and stresses the good intentions; if he didn’t, we wouldn’t cheer for this relationship to overcome what seem to be insurmountable obstacles.) Their duet, “Modern Love Song,” is a witty examination of their relationship: “We don’t even really know which movie we’re in,” Fi confesses. Everything about Guy and Fi, including the knock-through, satirizes – gently, fondly, but quite incisively – contemporary English yuppies, including the way Guy attempts to play proletarian with Rob, who keeps pulling the rug out from under him. Guy assumes the builder spends his nights watching the game, when in fact he attends readings or takes in a Pina Bausch dance concert. We realize only much later that the knock-through has another, more touching symbolic meaning too.

The endlessly inventive script introduces two hilarious phantasmagorical characters to help guide Guy through his inevitable transformation. The first is Elms (Steer), a dusty Victorian gentleman Rob reveals in the wall he has to knock through. Though Adamsdale gets a lot of comic mileage out of Guy’s introducing Elms to the twenty-first century (he becomes addicted to The Wire), the main purpose of his story – about a romance he begins with his landlady, the aforementioned music-hall star, who’s married to an abusive impresario – is to provide a parallel for Guy’s. The second is Fortunately Maybe (Barnett), a fully-grown Nigerian man Guy discovers he’s accidentally adopted through an organization called Crisis Child. Adamsdale uses the combination of the Victorian and the African to boomerang some sly (and extremely funny) political points through the text. These two actors – Steer, with his elongated frame and countenance and curly fringe of hair (hidden, initially, under a de rigeur topper), and the ample Barnett, who has a warm, animated face – and the amiably scruffy Adamsdale are an inspired trio. The entire ensemble is superlative, especially Wilson, a minimalist performer with peerless comic timing.

The Victorian in the Wall, which runs for ninety-five minutes without intermission, is a sublime doodle, comparable perhaps to Allen’s best recent movie, Midnight in Paris. Among the shows I saw in a month of London theatergoing, it didn’t linger like Chimerica or the National Theatre Othello, but I can’t say that anything else gave me more sheer pleasure.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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