Play that charted the rise of China updated for Trump era as Chimerica comes to TV

Lucy Kirkwood tells how she added press freedom and fake news when updating her 2013 drama for Channel 4

In 2013 Lucy Kirkwood’s play Chimerica was the most talked-about show in London, playing to packed audiences and winning five Olivier awards, including best new play. Five years later, the playwright has adapted her hit for TV – and says she was inspired to do so by the election of Donald Trump.

“When Trump came along, I did feel ‘oh this is the election I’ve been waiting for’,” Kirkwood told the Observer. “I’m such a slow writer: when I started writing the play, it was the 2008 election and there was still hope, then the actual play was set in 2012, which was that weird space where hope had died and nothing had come in to replace it. But we’re not in the Obama years any more and, while I’m wary of sounding as though I’m relishing Trump’s election, the 2016 election did bring everything into focus.”

Chimerica premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre in May 2013. It tackles the links between America and China through the wary relationship between a fictional American photojournalist determined to track down the Tiananmen Square “tank man”, and his chief contact in China, who has long since retreated from his youthful idealism.

The four-part Channel 4 adaptation, which starts next week, has a multinational cast including US actor Alessandro Nivola, Canadian Terry Chen and Britain’s Sophie Okonedo. “One of the things I found most fascinating about Trump’s rise to power is the way he’s degrading the press,” says Kirkwood. “The original play focused on China’s relationship to a free press; I saw the TV adaptation as a chance to be more even-handed. So there’s a lot in it about the various ways in which protest is being crushed in the west.”

She was interested in how the 45th president seeks to limit press accountability: “If you don’t have accountability via the press, you don’t have a functioning democracy. Trump has shut down the White House press conference and restricted press briefings; he’s called the New York Times the enemy of the people and only talks to Fox News: it’s dangerous. If you’d asked me in 2012 to use an adjective to describe how the current American government is behaving toward the press, I would have probably said Chinese.”

Kirkwood was also interested in looking at how the way we consume news has changed. In the play, American photojournalist Joe was driven by a nostalgia for past glories, but his TV equivalent Lee (played by Nivola) commits a career-ending act, in part because he believes his work is being ignored by a public permanently distracted by one shiny meme or the next. “I was thinking about what had changed between 2013 and now,” says Kirkwood. “There is this sense of the proliferation of media and I do feel, as someone who makes plays and television, that when you create something, you’re throwing it into this massive paddling pool of stuff. We can all watch TV 24 hours a day if we want and that frustration must be worse if you’re a news reporter or someone who is dealing in images of horrific violence or famine or war.

“I wanted to examine what it must feel like to be covering those images and feeling no one is actually looking at them. As much as Lee is a journalist who behaves very badly and is driven by self-interest, the story is still a love letter to journalism.”

It is also, on the Chinese side, a hymn to survival and the power of change, with Chen’s Zhang Lin slowly revealed as the story’s true protagonist, and certainly its heart.

“I’d always thought of Zhang Lin as similar to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca,” says Kirkwood. “He’s a man who, because of the past, has chosen to be apolitical but is then forced, through circumstances, to be political. I wanted to be very clear that China isn’t waiting for some sort of western saviour to solve its problems. There is an enormous amount of protest on the ground.”

Would she consider updating the story again? “I think I’m done now,” she says, “although I do think the relationship between China and America is only going to get more relevant. When we were updating the play we couldn’t say ‘oh, this is an outrage’ and have the characters seeing meaning in Trump’s campaign that wasn’t there at the time. People at the time didn’t take him seriously, and that’s part of the point: if you don’t take those small germs seriously, they dig down and their roots set in.”

Chimerica is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesday 17 April.

Lucy Kirkwood.
Lucy Kirkwood. Photograph: See Li/Alamy


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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