Against at the Almeida Theatre
Luke (Ben Whishaw) is a tech genius of the Elon Musk variety, his billions built on a future of artificial intelligence and rocket launches. While one can only speculate about Musk’s real-life messianic intentions, there is less ambiguity around Luke. He believes God has spoken to him, leading to a trauma tour of the USA that makes clear violence, not just physical but structural, lies at the core of capitalism.
That’s not all. Christopher Shinn stuffs Against with school shootings, campus politics (prompting unpleasant sniggers from the audience at the mere mention of polyamory and gender identity), the awful working conditions of Amazon warehouses, drug addiction and Silicon Valley satire. Inevitably this means some huge plot points go underexplored.
For example, to have your protagonist claim he hears the word of God is a pretty big deal. It’s an odd choice, then, that this spiritual awakening is given the same level of exploration as a pair of workplace romances. And though the latter does feed into Shinn’s grand ideas about the difficulties of love and communication in the modern age, in the case of Luke’s relationship with Sheila (Amanda Hale) it only helps highlight how much of a problem the character is.
If one was feeling ungenerous, Against’s plot could be boiled down to “uber-privileged straight white man with a literal God complex exploits the trauma of others because he is afraid of commitment”. There are signs that Shinn is aware of the issues surrounding Luke – the ending of the play is directly tied to the impact of his (unexplored) businesses. But this is more to do with Luke’s specific role in the future of the labour market than the personal flaws of the character.
This isn’t to fault Ben Whishaw – he is easily the best thing about Ian Rickson’s stripped-back production (which does admittedly ratchet up the tension in the final ten minutes). Whishaw has an openness and honesty that urges confession from all who meet him, yet crucially he never overplays the Christ analogy, allowing frustration and impatience to bubble under the surface.
In a sense, there are similarities between Against and Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes. Both have sprawling narratives that take in religion, the march of progress and the legacy of pain, grasping so many ideas that not all can be done justice. There is one crucial difference, however. Whereas Kirkwood has an iron grip on her characters, preventing Mosquitoes from buckling under the weight of its own ambition, a lack of clarity in Shinn’s writing and plotting makes Against an infuriating grab bag of big ideas.
Against is at the Almeida Theatre from 12th August until 30th September 2017. For further information or to book visit their website here.