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American playwright Christopher Shinn (Four, Where Do We Live, Dying City) continues his inquisition into his homeland’s soul with his latest drama Against, a fiercely ambitious, undoubtedly admirable but flawed examination of violence, belief and redemption, premiering at London’s Almeida Theatre. Alert and empathic throughout in a role that requires him to be still and listen a lot, Ben Whishaw anchors the show with an intense performance as a Silicon Valley billionaire who suddenly starts getting enigmatic mental tweets from God, telling him to “go to where there’s violence.”
From this intriguing, Joan of Arc-meets-Jesus premise, however, the text spirals out in lashing tendrils to encompass mass shootings and gun culture, sexual politics and the current campus-culture, quasi-Maoist obsession with inclusivity — as well as love, alienation and capitalism in the age of the internet. That’s a helluva lot of stuff to wrap your arms around in one play, even allowing for a near three-hour running time, and while individual scenes engage the mind and coax up frequent rueful snickers, Against mostly fails to shift the heart.
It’s possible the drama might play better in the future, at a point when it won’t seem so almost-but-not-quite in sync with the zeitgeist of the moment. Perhaps it was particularly unlucky that the show’s press night, Aug. 18, fell at the end of a week when, at the time of writing, 14 people in Charlottesville, Va., and Barcelona had been killed by terrorists driving cars at crowds, as opposed to gun violence, which plays such a central role here.
Sure, recent events underscored just how much the ravenous hunger to hurt is embedded in the human brain, and the play earnestly endeavors to “go inside,” as God tells protagonist Luke to find not just simple causalities but the deepest wellspring of violence. But the further the play reaches to grasp such fundamentals, the less it gets a hold of, and we walk away, our hands almost empty except for wispy intellectual shreds. Shinn certainly deserves acknowledgment for trying to forge something original and profound in the medium, and my doubts and criticisms come from a place of admiration, and a wish that the work, for its own sake, could be just that little bit more persuasive.
After technicians in medical jumpsuits remove a crime scene tent while the audience settles into their seats, Whishaw’s Luke arrives on the bare-boards, undressed stage in conversation with Sheila (Amanda Hale), a tech journalist to whom he grew quite close while collaborating on his memoirs, although nothing physical happened between them.
Luke wants her to be his amanuensis and witness as he sets out on a new adventure, guided by the inexplicable but very real (to him) voice in his head that has directed him to the site of violence. Some might argue that surely he needn’t leave the Bay Area to do that, but Luke, an Elon Musk-alike who’s made his fortune building rockets, robots and artificial intelligence, is given to big gestures and absolutes.
Traveling to a high school where a boy shot many schoolmates, and later to a university campus where a student was raped, Luke hopes to find … well, he’s not quite sure what. Perhaps it will be a vision, or some kind of revelation that could save humanity, much needed given that “time is truly running out,” as he tells Sheila. “Everything I make has been for a future that may never come.”
With minimal props, subtle lighting and a few well-chosen wigs, director Ian Rickson and his highly competent cast create over a dozen locations and twice as many characters whom Luke meets along the way. There are plenty of amusing digressions, especially satirical interludes featuring idealistic college student Anna (Emma D’Arcy) having tense tutorial sessions with her narcissistic, painfully PC creative-writing teacher (Kevin Harvey, very funny indeed). One suspects, given that Shinn also teaches, that the jargon, cant and manipulative behavior are something he’s witnessed firsthand.
Those scenes almost feel like a good one-act that got folded into the main story of Against. Meanwhile, some of the other subplots — a warehouse workplace romance; Luke’s encounter with a Jeff Bezos-ian fellow entrepreneurial emperor (Harvey again) who runs “Equator,” an Amazon-like online retailer; Anna’s later adventures — feel less relevant to whatever theme Shinn is trying to plumb. By the time we get to Luke and Sheila thrashing out their feelings about intimacy, the tonal control has slipped away so much it’s impossible to work out if they are meant to be parodies of over-analyzed, solipsistic Americans or people to whose pain we really should relate.
Venue: Almeida Theatre, London
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Fehinti Balogun, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Nancy Crane, Emma D’Arcy, Amanda Hale, Kevin Harvey, Adelle Leonce, Martin McDougall, Philippe Spall, Gavin Spokes, Naomi Wirthner
Playwright: Christopher Shinn
Director: Ian Rickson
Set & costume designer: Ultz
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Music: Mark Bradshaw
Sound: Gregory Clark
Video designer: Robin Fisher
Movement director: Imogen Knight
Presented by Almeida Theatre Company
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