The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre February-March 2019
I have to begin by stating
that, as a white, middle-class, liberal American, I agree with most of
what Anne Washburn has to say – mainly despair at the rise and seeming
invincibility of Donald Trump. But Shipwreck is not a good play.
Through awkward construction
and lack of clear focus, playwright Washburn does not do justice to her
own vision. And the direction by Rupert Gould and design by Miriam Buether
distract more than assist.
The central strand of
Shipwreck – there are others, which I'll get to – is the conversation of a
group of white, middle class liberals snowbound in a country farmhouse.
Now, this set-up might have
led the playwright in one of two directions – either to a Shavian
discussion of contemporary American politics, the sort of animated and
fascinating conversation that Shaw could do easily and Stoppard and Hare
sometimes achieve, making the fervent exchange of ideas theatrically
alive; or a satire on the kind of fuzzy thinking and impotent whining that
even sympathisers have to admit that liberals can sometimes fall into.
Washburn doesn't seem to have
decided which approach she wants to take, and so we are invited to approve
of conversations that sound like nothing so much as the sort of thing
first-year university students, high on newly-discovered knowledge and the
excitement of classroom debate (and perhaps on what they're smoking) are
likely to have late at night, reaching epiphanies without realising how
banal and cliched they are.
Everyone's heart is in the
right place, but everyone is working very hard to re-invent the wheel.
Punctuating these scenes is a
second plot line only very tangentially connected, in which a young black
man from Africa tries to relate to the black American experience by
imagining what slavery was like. With a strong and sensitive performance
by Fisayo Akinade, these scenes are very moving, though they never escape
the sense of having wandered in from some other play.
And then there are two
nightmarish sequences involving Donald Trump himself, first in an imagined
conversation with George W. Bush and then in the role of Satan tempting
Jesus, with FBI Director James Comey as the resisting temptee.
Thanks to appropriately
over-the-top performances by Elliot Cowan these scenes are the liveliest
and most entertaining in the play, though I can't help wondering if it was
deliberate (or even conscious) that they actually make Trump appear strong
As is her wont, designer
Miriam Buether has reconfigured the Almeida, in this case into something
approaching in-the-round, though that structure does not seem especially
relevant to the play. (In a programme interview Buether suggests she did
it just because she likes doing things she hasn't done before.)
Despite the structural
change, director Rupert Gould stages things much as he would on a
conventional layout, with the actors playing to the bulk of the audience
that is out front. Gould's direction of the actors does not clarify things
much, leaving us constantly unsure of how much we should respect or
disdain the play's liberals, or how the other strands relate to the
Shipwreck has its strong
moments – one of the best comes at the very end, when a Trump supporter is
allowed to explain with simple eloquence the real hungers of many
Americans that the candidate and President fulfilled.
But a few strong moments in a three-hour play are not enough.
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