Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Sydney Theatre Company present, CHIMERICA, by Lucy Kirkwood, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. 28 February - 1 April.
CHIMERICA, is a three hour (plus interval) play of epic scale, written by Lucy Kirkwood, that premiered at the Almeida Theatre, in London, in 2013.
The play is epic in length, epic in production values, epic in cast, and best of all, epic in ideas. On a virtual empty stage, with the action of a revolve stage, the production swirls into that space creating locations for some 39 scenes, that are, at different times, naturalistic, emblematic (Brechtian?), surreal. The flexible Set Design is by David Fleischer, the Lighting Design by Nick Schlieper, The Composer and Sound Design by The Sweats. All contributing spectacularly, successfully, in creating the momentum and aesthetics of the play, giving the audience enough clue and space to endow the journey, both as a community and personally.
There is a cast of 12 professional actors, some playing multiple roles, and a support group of 20 student actors (unpaid, from NIDA Musical Theatre Course [this is their first term]) creating the dynamics of the characters and the impressive images for the Director, Kip Williams' vision, as well as, more prosaically, shifting the furniture and props. The huge Costume Design has been created by Renee Mulder. Kip Williams presents his usual penchant for stage images but also has taken much care with the text - the written word. CHIMERICA is an achievement, all round.
Ms Kirkwood has structured a rumination on many contemporary social, cultural, political and economic issues around a basic who-where-is-he? mystery plot/quest and garnished it with a rom-com tension and a family tragedy.
Joe Schofield (Mark Leonard Winter), a photojournalist, happens to be in Beijing in the Chinese spring of 1989 during the protest/demonstration that occupied Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace), and observes the arrival of the Chinese Liberation Army with their tanks to disperse it, witnessing from his hotel room a lone man with white plastic bags of shopping, halting a procession of tanks and conversing with a soldier from the lead tank, and, was able, fortuitously, to take a photograph, which, when smuggled out of China and published in the West, becomes an iconic image of international fame.
23 years later. Who is Tank Man? What is his identity? Is it true that he now lives in New York? If so, where is he? If it is true, this is a great story. The plot of the play moves forward on Joe's dogged search for Tank Man's identity and whereabouts in the Chinese community of New York, and to publish a possible article - it will be a new career coup, for Joe, if it all transpires. The structure of the play takes us back in time and to Beijing, where we meet an acquaintance of Joe's, a Chinese teacher of English, Zhang Lin (Jason Chong) and his family and neighbours and their travails. We also meet an English marketeer, Tessa Kendrick (Geraldine Hakewill), engaged in preparing others for interaction with the Chinese money-market opportunities. Too, the personalities of a 2012 New York in the world of Joe's 'hunt', are revealed.
With great humour (there is a lot of wit going on - don't go tired) aided by stock characterisations that allow knowing recognitions of character type and a short-cut to comedy: eg. whiplashed, morally perturbed reporter, Mel Stanwyck (Brent Hill); bullying, rapacious but kind hearted Editor, Frank (Tony Cogin) - we get this newspaper world instantly, all, recognisable, in this instance, from the theatre haunts of the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur's 1928 play: THE FRONT PAGE.
Ms Kirkwood has us ponder the morality of journalism; the ethics of photojournalism and the usages of those images; the economic diplomacy and consequences of the monetary interaction between the United States and China - one a 'saver' nation the other a 'spender' nation: CHIMERICA - a term coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick, of The Telegraph, to describe that dynamic; cultural contrasts and similarities; Chinese authoritarianism and market driven American arrogance; and the portent of Western hubris in regards to modern day China: the West v's the East.
Our 'hero' is Joe. We watch him in his ambitious pursuit of a scoop reveal his tawdry life in a reckless, ruthless, ethically corrupt chase for the 'truth', becoming more and more desperately selfish, self-absorbed, destroying, ignorantly, the lives of others in his quest. Zhang in disbelief to his friend Joe, having already suffered physical torture from Chinese officials: "You think an email from an American journalist does not get seen by censors? "TANK MAN" is the subject line, are you stupid or something?" We watch a chance meeting between Joe and a heavily pregnant Tessa, when he discovers his casual affair with her has huge consequences, at least for one of them. This man is a bankrupt human. An American narcissist (An American Psycho?) If this ordinary American man can cause such ignorant damage to the people in the world around him in pursuit of his personal ambitions - across personal and cultural boundaries - what can a man of real power compact? Sitting in the theatre one can only wonder how the new President's knowledge of "China, China, China" will resonate on world finance and politics? What will he produce?
Mark Leonard Winter leads the burden of this play with fine stamina, Jason Chong, grows in stature as the play progresses, while Tony Cogin steals acting honours as the editor. Brent Hill, too, impresses, and both, Matthew Backer (back in form) and Monica Sayers are champions of multiple roles, delivering with pin point accuracies for each of their responsibilities, what is needed to draw, swiftly, character and forward propulsion for the plot. Anthony Brandon Wong, Jenny Wu, Charles Wu, Gabrielle Chan and Rebecca Massey are in good support. Geraldine Hakewill, in a pivotal role as Tessa, fails to nail her dialect (it wanders across the English speaking world - especially, across Australia) and distracts away from the clarity of the characterisation and function meted out by Ms Kirkwood -Tessa has some crucial information and observation, debate - it gets, relatively, distractingly, lost.
CHIMERICA, is a terrific play, of a contemporary quality, rarely seen (or, it seems encouraged), on a Sydney (Australian stage).
I loved reading the reaction to this very near-the-bone piece in the US of A. Like, Lucy Prebbles', ENRON, that dealt with the Goldman Sachs disaster, it has been dismissed as shallow and inaccurate, disparaging the play with a summary of it being 'Hollywood fodder for snooty British progressives'. CHIMERICA and ENRON won a swag of prizes in the British theatre world, while, on the other hand, ENRON, closed on Broadway after only 12 performances and CHIMERICA, though seen in New York, was not on Broadway. (And, of course, those same Americans have permitted, elected Donald Trump.)
I encourage you all to go to see where you sit with CHIMERICA's content. The three hours twenty minutes, in the theatre, whisked by in humour, provocation and contemplation.
Many (critics, as well) have remarked how terrific it is to see so many performers on stage. I agree. However, it should be noted that 20 performers - the Ensemble - in this production are not being paid. They are in the theatre 8 performances a week for up to 4 hours (8 hours on matinee days) and are not been paid. A kind of 'Slave Labour', I guess? I wonder if they even receive travel or food money? They are only students. Eight performances is quite a burden, on their study time, and trying to make the money to cover the cost of living in Sydney, has been relatively paralysed for the length of the 'Packer' season - imagine trying to study, perform, and earn a survival living. One presumes the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) with Equity and The STC have taken due care in looking after their students' predicament when agreeing to pledge them to such a time-fractured occupation.
Recently, I read a story of a band of musicians asked to perform at a high-flyers function in Sydney. They were offered NO MONEY. In the meantime the caterers etc, all the other professionals, were being paid for their service and for what they produced. The artist can provide the entertainment for nothing - the experience and exposure was deemed sufficient. The Band declined to perform, to much public internet criticism by the organisers.
When one of the largest theatre companies in Sydney - Australia - The Sydney Theatre Company (STC), engages 20 performers and DOESN'T PAY THEM, I suppose the argument to be able to do so, was that the students would benefit from the experience and the exposure would be good for them. If the STC could not afford actors to work on their stage they should not have chosen the play - that seems logical to me.
I felt uncomfortable, watching well drilled but untrained performers (they, all, have just begun their training a few weeks ago - literally, only weeks) surrounded by colleagues of the profession in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, who had all been given free seats to see the show. I am positive that any of those seated artist-audience - graduates from Drama Schools - would much have preferred to be on the stage and benefiting from the experience and exposure, and being paid - what ever the rate, that would be proper.
All of the Independent theatres in Sydney, which provide the vital Performance Arts variety in Sydney, do not pay a wage - most of them attempt to pay a fee (the artists make such a sacrifice to be able to practice their craft, and in the hope that they may be seen by the major theatre employers - a sophisticated audition process, then - although, not many organisations send representatives to see the work, so a fruitless one, generally, as far as follow-on paid work opportunities go, I guess) - and, so, when the largest subsidised theatre in Sydney, and receiver of philanthropic monies, curates a play and engages some 20 actors and chooses not to pay them at all, it is a bit outrageous.
The STC has become part of the no-wage Independent Theatre scene! And that is on top of only, till CHIMERICA, employing (to be seen on stage) 4 Sydney actors since the middle of December, 2016. How do the Performing Artists in Sydney live and practice their profession when the STC chooses not to find plays to be able to employ them? I wonder, how many wages have been deployed in the Administration, in that period of time? (Just check out page 50-51 of your theatre program where there is a list of all the STC Company employees.)
Do any of the full time Administration staff at the STC do their jobs for the work experience, or for the exposure, and forgo payment of wage (or fee)?
That the Equity Foundation, has received thanks for their 'guidance and blessing' about this matter, from the STC, and allowed this to happen, is an outrage as well. Are the Equity Foundation 'movers-and-shakers' doing what they are doing, representing the performance artists in Australia for fair pay and working conditions, doing it for no wage? For surely they and the STC non-artist are getting not only a wage, but experience and 'exposure', too? Would the Union Bosses at Equity, STC Administration, and NIDA staff do the work on CHIMERICA, if they weren't being paid? Probably not.
That NIDA has exposed its performing arts students to the harsh reality of what they are in training for - work but no pay. It must be part of the promised educative experience and exposure to the Sydney Performing Artists reality. Part of the new curricula approved by their Board of Studies - I guess?
It appears then, that three major Performing Arts organisations in Sydney do believe that the Performing Artists on the major theatre stage in Sydney should not be paid. Even if it is at the STC - one of Australia's 'richest' theatre companies. 20 unpaid workers on their main stage, in a critically heralded production! Breathtakingly unbelievable in the 21st century in a first world economy, at the national flagship Performing Arts company: the STC! Their production of THE PRESENT, is 'flag waving', gathering International attention, one way or another, in New York. I wonder if anyone in New York will take notice of what this Company can offer, in work practice, to its other Australian artists? An AUSMERICA, exchange of business practice, that may become a role model for New York's theatre practice? With New York's Union rule, not likely. Perhaps, we can export it to China, as a role model in the new CHISTRAYA relations, then? Perhaps.
Exploitation of the local available amateur/student pool at the expense of the professional artist? Why anyone has not discussed this in a public forum is outrageously concerning, don't you think? Come on, this is 2017 not Dickensian 1817! Where has the ethical line moved to? The buildings at the STC are 'green' we are told, often, but that they are actor sparse - we are never told/advised.