Sunday 7 April 2019

Shipwreck at the Almeida, or, I So Wanted to Be Post This Play

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Monday 25th March 2019.

There is, it appears, currently a competition going on between playwrights in Britain and the United States to write issue plays. For the former the subject is general state of the nation, sometimes with reference to Brexit, for the latter the subject is Trump. I cannot think of a single such play that I've seen that has been really good. This latest entry, Annie Washburn's Shipwreck, is long and dull.

My previous two encounters with Washburn's work were the uneven but interesting Mr Burns and her excellent adaptation of The Twilight Zone. Here Washburn tries to knit three strands together. First, a collection of eight liberal friends gathering for a reunion at a farmhouse one pair have recently bought somewhere in the United States (it is one of the failings of this play that it remains opaque where in the States we are). Secondly, the story of the immediately preceding white owners of the farmhouse (actual farmers) and their adopted Kenyan son. Thirdly, two fantasy scenes involving Donald Trump confronting George W. Bush (at the time of the Iraq War) and James Comey (at the famous dinner demanding loyalty).

The three strands are not knitted together convincingly. Washburn appears to be largely uninterested in exploring who these eight liberals are or how they came to know each other, and thus we never really establish why they think the way they do about politics. This makes their lengthy repetition of various theories about the rise of Trump, the bulk of which I had run across in non-fiction reporting since the election, pretty tiresome. Washburn has nothing new to say about this stuff - the characters, and their relationships on the other hand could have been emotionally and intellectually interesting and then become a window into politics - when they're just talking at you divorced from that as far as I was concerned I got bored very quickly and switched off (well it was that or start answering them back or telling them for the love of God to shut up and I have not yet been thrown out of a theatre and don't intend to start now).

Washburn's other early error is the classic one of questioning the point of theatre. In a scene that feels like an undergraduate seminar, the eight liberals discuss whether it is possible for theatre to engage effectively with contemporary politics. I'm afraid this only serves to underline that this play largely fails to do so. And it creates a wider problem - Washburn seems to want the viewer to care about the experiences of the Kenyan foster child but I could not forget that the play had already highlighted its artificiality. Once you do that it's very difficult to recapture conviction.

The Trump scenes, like most things in this show, go on too long. They are also not zany enough - as with plays trying to deal with Brexit the problem is that the reality is so wild theatre struggles to compete with it. The show already feels politically dated - it has nothing new to say about the Democratic despair of the early Trump period, and with the swing against Trump in the midterms the situation now looks very different.

Marooned in the seemingly endless text, a strong ensemble does its best. But not even fine performers like the versatile Justine Mitchell can lift this.

Rupert Goold's production is more restrained than on some occasions - though the revolve is overused, and as so often during his Artistic reign I didn't feel that he understood how the sightlines in the Circle work (or don't). He gives a decent platform for the piece, but he can't disguise the significant flaws.

Altogether this was a pretty interminable evening. Some took advantage of the interval to flee, I can't say I blame them. However, it did have one benefit - despite the boredom I did forget (as with Forza del destino the previous afternoon) about the Brexit insanity while I was watching - which made the discovery of Theresa May's Commons humiliation as I walked home all the more cheering.

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