The inspiration for Lucy Kirkwood’s play CHIMERICA was the famous photo taken of a Chinese man, holding grocery bags in both hands, who stood defiantly in front of a group of tanks, the morning after the Tiananmen Square massacre of protesters by the army in Beijing in 1989. When the front tank tried to swerve past him, in either direction, the man bravely continued to block him. Images of this defiant man were captured and ‘spread’ around the globe. The anonymous man became known as Tankman.

Kirkwood’s CHIMERICA is a work of the imagination. It features a what if scenario woven out of a well known real life situation.

What if, some twenty odd years after the event, there was a brief piece in a newspaper indicating that Tankman might still be alive. What if one of the photographers from back then, Kirkwood creates a fictional character, American photo-journalist Joe Schofield, spots the piece by chance during one of his visits to Beijing, and decides to make it his personal mission/quest to find Tankman, to release him from his anonymity, and to finally get to tell his story to the world!

From the mesmeric opening scene featuring people, with grocery bags in their hands, spread across the stage, feet defiantly pounding on the floor to the abrasive music to the play’s wonderful poignant final scene, Kirkwood takes us on one hell of a ride.

There are so many stories packed into this epic, rich, substantial work which runs for some three hours of stage time. The quest story…the story of the friendships and the romance which Joe forms along the way. Kirkwood looks at some of the dramatic social changes that have taken place in Chinese culture over recent decades, and contrasts this with the confused, agitated nature of American politics, well before one Donald Trump.

Kip Williams production is dynamic and invigorating. Williams brilliantly marshals his large troupe of players, over thirty of them, as they confidently navigated rapid scene changes, always well flagged. The staging, featuring David Fleischer’s revolve set, Renee Mulder’s brilliant array of costumes, Nick Schlieper’s complex lightning design, and the dark soundscape by The Sweats, came together well to bring Kirkwood’s vision to life.

The cast were all great from Mark Leonard Winter’s striking performance in the lead to the wonderful complement of NIDA Diploma of Music Theatre students who made up the very important ensemble. Special mention to Geraldine Hakewill as high flying marketing consultant Tessa Kendrick, Jason Chong as sensitive, dissident high school teacher Zhang Lin, Tony Cogin as hard nosed old school newspaper editor Frank, and Rebecca Massey in a variety of roles from secretaries to senators.

Contemporary theatre at its most vital, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s CHIMERICA, directed by Kip Williams, is playing the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay until April 1.