The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Summer-Autumn 2017
Against is about a man who takes on a large issue, discovers that it is more complex and less clearly defined than he thought, and ends up wandering through false starts and digressions to no clear conclusion.
Against is a play that takes on a large issue, discovers that it is more complex and less clearly defined than the author thought, and ends up wandering through false starts and digressions to no clear conclusion.
The main character starts with the attractiveness of the naive idealist but becomes less engrossing and ultimately annoying as he stumbles toward the not especially original conclusion that he must solve his own problems before those of the outside world, and social activism is replaced by hippie-dippie navel gazing.
The play starts with the attractiveness of being about Something Big, but becomes less engrossing as the playwright himself appears to have difficulty remaining interested in it and it seems to meander aimlessly through a very long almost-three-hours.
Christopher Shinn's hero is a Bill Gates-like Silicon Valley billionaire who has a religious experience that moves him to devote his life to ending the curse of violence in human society.
Grand as that ambition is, in his hands it becomes little more than visiting places that have experienced localised episodes of violence – a shot-up high school, a university where there was a rape, a prison with a murdered inmate – and just talking to people, hoping to start a dialogue that will enable the survivors and witnesses to move through the trauma.
Inevitably he generates some opposition, though the hero-worshipping and messiah-seeking acolytes prove more disturbing.
Worse, he is repeatedly and too easily convinced to expand his definition of violence until it becomes too nebulous to address, and he responds by retreating into self-absorption, seeking to purge the violence he imagines within before addressing that without.
Putting aside the problem that the character is never developed sufficiently for us to particularly sympathise with his various internal crises, the playwright keeps turning away from him to passing characters who are even less developed and – at least as presented – less and less relevant.
A sexual activist professor is in the university sequence to debate with the hero and confuse his concept of violence, but the play then drifts off for a while into a subplot showing him hypocritically attempting to manipulate and bully a student into following his sexual-political agenda.
A few scenes take place in the warehouse of an Amazon-like company, mainly to allow an encounter between the hero and another new-economy billionaire, but the play is distracted by the faltering love lives of a couple of employees.
Even the meeting with the Jeff Bezos figure, meant to show how the other guy co-opts some of the hero's do-gooder image to mask an increase in his profits, plays as a self-contained bit of satire wandered in from some other play.
Ben Whishaw plays the central character as such a blank that there is too little for us to identify with or care about, and not enough residual sympathy to keep him from becoming irritating as his grand project shrinks into navel-gazing.
Playing the Girl Friday who is secretly and then openly in love with her boss, Amanda Hale works very hard to not notice that the role is a total cliche.
The rest of the cast double and triple roles playing Everyone Else, Kevin Harvey bringing some demonic energy to the professor and the other rich guy.
Director Ian Rickson and designer ULTZ betray a lack of faith in either the play or the cast by using surtitles to identify the location ('Hotel Room' 'High School Lawn', etc.) of every scene, as if afraid the dialogue and actors could not have made that clear enough.
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