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
a good play.
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
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
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
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
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.)
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.
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