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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Shipwreck
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 and attractive.

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 central discussion.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Shipwreck - Almeida Theatre 2019
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