Against at the Almeida Theatre review ****



Almeida Theatre, 9th September 2017

The more plays I see the more I realise there are many ways to build a work of theatrical drama. You can build the foundations on language and the space around it, You can create powerful, memorable, immediate characters. You can construct a plot of more or less complexity to draw the audience into the narrative. Or you can explore ideas, from the individual mind all the way through to the global. And you can do all of this in a more, or less, naturalistic way. The joy of theatre is that all is possible and that it is a shared and ever changing experience. Which means when it works, (which is not as often as you might think), it knocks all other art forms into the proverbial cocked hat.

Some playwrights (and the directors, actors and the rest of the team that bring these works to life) take these elements, in various combinations, and give them a thorough, muscular work-out. Some are more subtle however. On the basis of Against, as this is the only one of his plays I have seen, Christopher Shinn is one of the latter. In fact he is at the extreme of dramatic subtlety. This is I suspect a very difficult trick to pull off, but in this play I think he largely succeeds.

Luke is a techhie billionaire in Silicon Valley with fingers in rocket science, solar energy and AI pies. Following a “message” from “God” he decides to explore the causes and meaning of violence in contemporary America. His devoted assistant, Sheila, joins him on the journey. He travels across the country visiting the parents of a student who murdered his peers in a shooting spree, the college where this took place, a campus plagued by sexual violence, a prison where he meets the father of a horribly abused child, some remarkably eloquent addicts and an Amazonian type warehouse (as in Amazon the company not the women of legend) owned by a fellow billionaire type. He returns at one point to his childhood home and to mummy. We hear of Luke’s other exploits as his messianic search for knowledge builds into a cultish following. Simultaneously he falls in love with Sheila, and, on his journey of discovery, finds out stuff about himself and his fellow Americans. The relationship between two of the workers at the warehouse is also sketched out to reinforce the power of love.

Now the cynics amongst you are probably already rolling your eyes at the seeming naivety of this set-up. And I accept that Mr Shinn’s dialogue at times would only encourage you in this impression. There is a fair amount of faux philosophising from the characters and there are some surprising shifts in tone and position. I think this put off a number of the proper reviewers. Yet, slowly and surely, Mr Shinn breathes life into the characters and situations, and the gentle meandering rhythm of the drama gives us, the audience, plenty of time to reflect on what we are seeing and hearing. And this is what makes this a worthwhile play to my thinking.

In no particular order the play got me cogitating on the following. How would a powerful entrepreneur, who claimed to have been directed by a “God”, be received in contemporary society? Should Silicon Valley billionaires have such power? How can they influence society with their wealth and their control of digital media and networks? Is our belief in technology to overcome limitations on growth about to get a terminal shock or will we have further great leaps forward? Why is violence so prevalent in today’s society? Is it worse now than historically? Does the media scare us into an unwarranted fear of violence? Why is it always blokes that do bad stuff? Is violence an inherent part of the human condition? Will insights from neuroscience and social psychology help us? Do humans need conflict? How are violence and hate to be squared with our tendency to altruism and love? How do we “turn the other cheek”? Why do people get so angry about the behaviour and identity of others?

Now you might say to yourself, blimey there can’t have been much going on on the stage for the Tourist to drift off and start musing over all this stuff. On the contrary the light touch that Mr Shinn, and director Ian Rickson (who always ensures clarity, most recently in Edward Albee’s Goat), explicitly allowed these thoughts to float around as the scenes progressed. Answers to the questions were not really on offer, beyond a simplistic love trumping hate, but I am not sure that should be seen as a failing. It’s only a play after all. The conclusion, whilst not particularly original (a nod to Chekhov methinks), did sort of make sense in the context of what had gone on before.

Given the structure of the play and the loftiness of the ambition we did need an outstanding performance from our lead, and that is what we got. Man-child Ben Whishaw looks the saviour part and managed to carry off the strange mix of authority and guilessness that I think the character Luke was supposed to possess. He uses his twitching body as much as his voice to portray his inner struggles. There were times though, when even his willingness to suspend his disbelief stretched ours a little too far, but no matter, he is still a tremendous stage actor. Amanda Hale as the partner on the journey had a little less to play with but struck exactly the right note. And the rest of the cast were able to invest the remaining characters with real identities in spite of, or perhaps because of, the somewhat didactic dialogue.

Best of all I didn’t have to make up my own mind about Against. For I was treated to the company of the Captain, who can sniff bullshit out at a range of a couple of miles. And there was enough here to engage the Captain’s mighty intellect. And that my friends is as high a recommendation as you need. Trust me.

PS. One final thing. As the play of ideas swirled round my head I was drawn to remembering a few books I had read which seemed to mark out similar territory to this play.. I don’t read much now, I don’t have the patience and in matters literary I defer to the SO who consumes fiction at demonic pace. But they popped into my head so here you are.

First up Messiah by Gore Vidal. This is more a satire on Christianity but this was the great man flexing his genius in the early 1950’s. For those who don’t know Gore Vidal – put this right. He might just be the greatest author of the second half of the C20.

Next up The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel or probably better still Scorsese’s film. Not an easy watch with its glacial pacing but a powerful piece of cinema. No idea why all the religious types get so wound up about it – I would have thought it captures the dilemmas Christian wrestle with to a tee.

Anyway I see I am getting a bit too zealous about the messianic theme in the play so final thought: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  Now I confess I only just about getting to grips with this but it seems to squarely take on some of the issues that Mr Shinn’s play is grappling with. And it is a text that straddles the academic world (BD is knee deep in it for her degree) and the “popular science” market And I see that is was endorsed by none other than Messrs Gates and Zuckerberg, which seems sweetly ironic in the context of this play.