Monday 10 June 2013


I once facetiously advanced the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald's intended target in Dallas that day wasn't the President but the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. He missed, and what should have been a murder became an assassination. Why anyone would want to murder Jackie Kennedy is an issue yet to be resolved, of course. Let the conspiracy theorists scramble - I've done the spadework.

This theory came back to me last Saturday at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, as I watched the acclaimed new play by Lucy Kirkwood - Chimerica.

Like the rest of the audience I was bowled over by the brilliant technology employed in the production - a house-sized revolving cube, on which were projected photographic contact prints, and within which spaces constantly changed their appearance. The effect was consistently astounding - the cube became smoothly and in swift succession an airport terminal, an aeroplane interior, a night club, a frozen fish warehouse, apartments in Beijing and New York, a newspaper office, a police cell, a florists. Nothing, it seems, is beyond representation on stage. The performances were mostly very good and the Chinese lead, Benedict Wong, quite brilliant. British actors doing American accents are never easy on the ear, but this cast pretty much pulled it off and two of the male leads did something more - they moved and breathed and stood like Americans. This is unusual - something to do with the shoulders, the tilt of the head, the way they act when they have no lines to say.

The narrative drive in Chimerica centres on the identity of the so-called Tank Man, the lone figure with two plastic shopping bags who appears single-handedly to stand up to a platoon of tanks during the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The lead character is a fictitious American photo-journalist who took one of the shots of the Tank Man at the time and, more than two decades later, wants to trace his whereabouts. (I learned today that the moment was in fact captured by four different photo-journalists present in Beijing on that day, so the creation of a fifth is hardly stretching the truth.)

The play argues, and very persuasively, that the real hero of that encounter was not the lone protestor but the commander of the first tank, who, in breach of orders and at great personal risk, failed to run over the protestor and take control of the Square. His decision not to obey orders has never been the focus of our attention - but surely it should be. Just as if Nazi death camp guards had thrown down their rifles and flatly refused to carry out the acts of barbarism expected of them. They were, infamously, only obeying orders. The anonymous tank commander was only disobeying orders and is a lesson for us all - but has been  no more the focus of our interest than Jackie Kennedy in Dealey Plaza.

The Tank Commander was (according to the play) executed following a summary court martial and his family also punished. I was completely persuaded by this entirely hypothetical interpretation of the moment and the underlying implication that we in the West missed the real, if non-explicit, import of the confrontation - what Roland Barthes, talking about photographs, usefully called the punctum. In the images below, to adopt Barthes' term, the ostensible subject is the protester, but the punctum is the barely-visible head of the tank commander emerging from the turret, not the frail figure on the ground.

Chimerica has one further surprise up its sleeve, a revelatory moment that I shan't give away but which alone was worth price of a ticket ten times over. If the function of art is to make the familiar strange, to make us see things in a fresh light, then Chimerica is the real thing. A brilliant achievement.

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