Matthew Backer on political thriller Chimerica, Kip Williams rehearsal rooms and the “Tank Man”

Inspired by one of the 20th century’s most powerful images, the photograph “Tank Man”, Chimerica tackles two decades of complex US-China relations alongside the personal stories that exist beyond the margins of history.

We caught up with Matthew Backer during rehearsals to talk about this geopolitical thriller and what to expect from this latest production by Sydney Theatre Company.

Could you give us a little bit of an introduction to Chimerica and your role in the production?

Chimerica is a big, sweeping, fast-talking, fast-paced, political-thriller meets detective story meets comedy from British dramatist Lucy Kirkwood. She packs a lot in there. The play draws its title from a term coined by Scottish historian Niall Ferguson which refers to the predominance of China and America in modern geopolitics and its plot revolves around one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century, that of the ‘Tank Man’ who, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, defiantly stood in front of a row of military tanks in Beijing. If you’re unaware of this pic, Google it; still so powerful. Lucy has given us a fictional account of one of the photographers, Joe played by Mark Leonard Winter, who captured that incredible moment in history and his journey 20 years later as he tries to track down the famous yet very-much unknown ‘Tank Man’. I play a number of characters that Joe comes into contact with: an ex-journalist who was a Beijing correspondent in 1989, a legislative assistant in Washington DC, a young Silicon Valley CEO, a New York cop etc etc. I’m a man of many hats in a production like this. Metaphorically and literally.

How did you prepare for this rather politically charged play? Was there much background reading on the decades of complex US-China relations?

There is so much research one can devour when prepping for something of this magnitude. You just keep digging: American political history, Chinese history, Chinese political history, American/Chinese relations, the Tiananmen Square protests, the news coverage of this event, documentaries, Podcasts, interviews, the list goes on and on. So I just read and read and watch and listen and then I gradually stop doing as much once we’re up on the floor as you sort of have to research to forget and just play what’s on the page and start daydreaming about your character and what they’re doing, instead of worrying about whether America or China has a stronger economy, for example. That stuff is informative but doesn’t really help your scene work on the day. I think being an ex-journo though, I always love diving into the research for a play. But the joy of working on a good script is that all the info you and the audience need is already there on the page anyway.

Chimerica is described as being a “gripping thriller, a touching romance, a cracking comedy and a rich drama”. How does it manage all this at once?

We keep catching ourselves in rehearsals, going: ‘bloody Kirkwood! How does she do that?!’ She packs so much into her scenes that if it was a Netflix series, I’m sure you’d rewind or watch the series again and again just to fully grasp how much information and character development and commentary she’s including. Then when the scenes all smash together to form a play, it’s a ripping one. I guess she’s just really good at imagining life and the world and all its complexities on stage. At first glance it’s epic and globetrotting and contains many characters but at its core it’s small and intimate and littered with humans. Some characters appear in only one scene, yet they still feel fully formed and are intriguing enough for their own play.

You recently worked with newly appointed Artistic Director Kip Williams on A Midsummer Nights Dream, with rehearsals (in your own words) being “fun, tiring, thrilling and exciting, which is a Kip Williams rehearsal room”. Is it turning out to be a much the same for Chimerica?

Pretty much! A Kip Williams rehearsal room is one of my favourite places to be. It is all those things and more. And this play goes like the clappers, a heap of scenes and a heap of locations and a heap of characters. So we’ve naturally been needing to work hard and fast. Combined with having so many people in the room, the energy of the space is vibrating like mad, so we’re all enjoying it and each other and we’re not exactly tired yet. Although, we haven’t fully run the sucker yet so get back to me when we piece it all together and are slumped in a corner trying to remember which character we’re supposed to be entering as.

It seems like there is going to be a lot happening on-stage, with an additional 20 ensemble members as well as the main cast. Does this help make everything seem so much bigger?

Absolutely. Bigger than Ben Hur, as they say, whoever they are. We have the people to populate a New York park. We have the people to populate Tiananmen Square. We have the people to populate a rowdy dive bar. That amount of people makes a scene and the stage pulsate in a way that we don’t usually get to see on Sydney stages. It’s very exciting to be amongst it every day and we hope it’ll be even more exciting for the audience to see that many people populate the Ros Packer.

And finally, what kind of feelings does the iconic “Tank Man” photograph conjure for you personally?

Mainly a feeling of wonder. The wonder of the human spirit. The wonder of the power of photography to so precisely capture such a single, intimate, epic moment like that. The wonder of history and all its stories. And wondering who ‘Tank Man’ was: where did he come from, where was he going, what was he thinking at the time, where is he now etc? I mean, as an actor, they’re the sorts of questions you ask or should ask with every character you play. But the man in that photo was no imaginary character. He was real and that moment was real and all we can do is wonder about it now. And it obviously made Lucy Kirkwood wonder and wonder because here we are in Chimerica, the play.

Matt will be appearing in Chimerica, playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from the 28th February – 1st April. For more information and to book visit sydneytheatre.com.au

Matthew Backer’s profile shot (c) Robert Reid 2016