For those of us alive in 1989, when an unnamed man defiantly stood in front of a row of tanks after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, we remember the indelible news footage and images of him swinging plastic shopping bags in a daring, impromptu dance between the desire for democracy and the crushing firepower of the Chinese state. Who was he? What propelled his bravery? What were the consequences of his actions, and what became of him – and, for that matter, the soldier who failed to run him down?

Mark Leonard Winter, Brent Hill, Tony Cogin and Rebecca Massey in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica. All photos © Brett Boardman

We don’t know, and may never know, but British playwright Lucy Kirkwood has a red hot go at presenting us in her play Chimerica with a story of who Tank Man might have been, staged with precision by director Kip Williams, with scenes that segue seamlessly between past and present, employing a chorus that alternately dances and flees for its life.

The title of the play is an amalgam of China and America, and its coinage is attributed to Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, who uses the term in his book The Ascent of Money. Kirkwood raises its association, too, with chimera – the mythological, fire-breathing monster – but the connection I made was with the song Chimes of Freedom, Bob Dylan’s paean to the downtrodden.

The company in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica.

This play is no simple propaganda exercise selling democratic supremacy, however, with Western emphasis on individual selfishness and neoliberal global exploitation placed under the microscope alongside China’s suppression of expression, torture of its own citizens and environmentally choking, unchecked economic growth. Tiananmen, incidentally, is conventionally translated as Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Monica Sayers and Brent Hill in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica

Mark Leonard Winter, an actor of wide range, plays US photographer Joe Schofield, a fictitious amalgam of the photojournalists who captured those Tiananmen images in 1989. We first meet him in that year, and we soon meet him again two decades later, when Obama is battling Romney to lead America and a Hillary Clinton presidency is still on the horizon. America is facing a fiscal cliff and Joe, approaching 40 and dressed in double denim, is surviving the digital disruption that has decimated old print media while still equipped with his trusty small conventional camera. He is painfully aware kids can do his job with iPhones and their built-in cameras, or that Google search might throw up some instant theories on Tank Man’s fate, but Joe is determined to track down Tank Man while wearing out old-school journalistic leather, whatever the cost to the subject he pursues.

Before Joe lands back in Beijing, he meets Brit Tessa Kendrick, crisply performed by Geraldine Hakewill, on the aircraft. She’s a witty executive who soon wants to sign the photographer’s image to a credit card, her killer corporate instinct possibly fuelled by the cold-eyed writings of Ayn Rand. Her curiosity about Tank Man begins and ends with what shopping he might have had in his bags, until she has a meltdown not over China’s human rights violations but a Darwinian survivalist question: what are the consequences of getting into bed for the next century with a culture we don’t understand? At this point, I recalled the signing of a 99-year lease of the port in our own Darwin, to a Chinese company.

Mark Leonard Winter and Gabrielle Chan in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica.

The Western side of the story is well elucidated, but less successful is the play’s initial imagining of post-Tiananmen life in China. In their first scenes, Jason Chong as Zhang Lin and Anthony Brandon Wong as Zhang Wei are handed some lumpen dialogue about American fast food chains and sneakers. Too many efforts at getting a laugh out of cultural disconnection mean these characters take too long to advance out of first gear, while the play is more concerned with developing photographer Schofield.

This is tricky territory for a Western playwright, trying to imagine the Chinese experience, but Chong eventually gets to hit his stride when his character begins a campaign to help a neighbour blighted by “Beijing lung”, caused by air pollutants, and director Williams delivers some wonderfully surreal scenes involving a mysterious Chinese girl who appears to emerge from a refrigerator, ever-ready to cater to Zhang Lin’s thirst.

Charles Wu and Jenny Wu in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica.

The second half of the play hits the story home on all sides, with a compelling energy in staging, anchored by the dramatic and comic dexterity of Charles Wu as a young Zhang Lin. Tank Man’s identity is revealed, and his defiance in China more than a quarter of a century ago serves as a salient lesson in this era, in which populist Western nationalism has provided a cover for the chilling possibility of state corruption of a US election.

Consider this: we might kid ourselves that the West is devoid of shadowy interests and that the individual remains free to ascend to achieve his or her potential, but even quicker than China moved from famine to SlimFast, the fat wealth accumulators here have demonstrated democracy as a nebulous notion that is easily dispensed. We in the West don’t understand China, it is true, but when the new US president labels his critics as enemies of the people, perhaps we also fail to grasp the fuselage arrayed against our own citizens, even as our own state suppresses foreigners who would in an instant swap oppression for the democratic dream we have sold the world.

Sydney Theatre Company presents Chimerica at Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 1