By Lucy Kirkwood
Almeida Theatre, London
(Transfering to the Harold Pinter Theatre in August)
Lucy Kirkwood is just 29; her new play, a co–production between the Almeida and Rupert Goold's company Headlong, is a total triumph.
What's most surprising is its daring ambition and what is great is that it succeeds. It explores the complex symbiotic relationship between the US and China (the clumsy title is taken from historian Niall Ferguson's book The Ascent of Money), but does so through focusing on stories of people caught up in this maelstrom.
Set in Beijing and Manhattan and switching between 1989 and the run up to Obama's re–election, the play takes the form of a quest. Idealistic photojournalist Joe (Stephen Campbell Moore) was on a Beijing hotel room balcony in June 1989 photographing that solitary man, carrying just a pair of shopping bags, who confronted the tanks which were literally crushing the rebellion in Tiananmen Square. Joe is a fictional amalgam of six real photographers and the play is a speculation.
Fascinated with what might have happened to the forgotten hero of the Square we follow Joe's close friendship over 24 years with Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), a local fixer come schoolteacher, as they try to track down the Tank Man whom Joe thinks re–surfaced in New York. Written out of official Chinese history Tank Man is now being expediently forgotten by the West also.
Joe and his hardboiled journalist sidekick Mel (Sean Gilder) scour Chinatown following leads, in the process stretching the patience and generosity of their editor Frank, who is struggling with the timidity of his paper's nervous owners and their Chinese investors. Trevor Cooper is at his scene–stealing best here as the wily New Yorker who has to give Joe the odd reality check.
Kirkwood expertly weaves the personal and the political and tackles issues such as the veracity of photojournalism, the infiltration of Western market segmentation techniques in China (and whether they'd work), the politics of pollution in a city literally choking from "progress", the suppression of news and internet in China, and the deadly hand of corporate self censorship in the West. In all this, however, she never loses sight of the need to flesh out fully human characters, all with their own flaws and contradictions.
A good example is the English marketing dynamo Tessa (Claudie Blakley) with whom Joe has a tryst. In thrall to the gospel of the market and wide–eyed with glee at the sheer potential of China, a country that went "from famine to Slimfast in a generation", she reprimands Joe for his sanctimoniousness. Blakley shines during a scene when she has a Damascene conversion during a Powerpoint presentation.
Central to its success is Es Devlin's stunning design, enhanced by Finn Ross's projections. The stage is dominated by a huge white rotating cube, with inlaid rooms, on the sides of which are projected large B&W contact sheets of the glimpses of Manhattan or Beijing, all marked up with a red pen. Rarely has a design conceit been so apt.
Lyndsey Turner's direction has the dynamism of Enron (a previous Headlong hit) but it is never flippant and the performances she elicits from a large ensemble cast, who double up roles, are a joy.
The tragedy of Joe's quest in the end is that he misses what's right under his nose. The reveal here (without giving the plot away) has the narrative kick of a great thriller; it will be a hit movie before very long.