Shipwreck at Almeida Theatre
The theatrical equivalent of Marmite, Anne Washburn has her targets set on contemporary culture’s biggest white – well, orange – whale: the 45th president of the United States (shudder) Donald J Trump. In an upstate farmhouse eight old friends meet for dinner; what they end up getting is an evening of psychological terror. White liberal, middle-class, middle-aged hand-wringing so aggressive it’ll leave scars.
If that sounds too straight-forward, then don’t worry, this is a Washburn play through and through. The agonising display of Democratic soul-searching is regularly interrupted by the monologues of a white farmer and his adopted black son – the scenes crucially set in what appears to be the 80s, a time when MTV was the precursor to our own image-saturated age – whose various lived experiences and political views counterbalance the liberal sniping. Oh, and there are a pair of WILD flights of imagination featuring a version of Trump that the man, and some of his voters, must fantasise about.
In order to combat the atomised experience of the daily news cycle, Washburn sets the piece in the period just after former-FBI chief James Comey’s testimony accusing Trump of a shady, legally dubious plea for loyalty. It’s an implicit acknowledgement of the difficulties of political theatre in the time of the second-by-second update, an acknowledgement that at times becomes far more explicit.
It’s also just one element of Shipwreck‘s self-awareness, something that douses almost every scene. Yet it has its limits. The overwhelming, near-total whiteness of the friendship group is by design; as the play goes on, the way they handle their discussions seems more and more contemptible. But that doesn’t itself fix the problem of the creative team being overwhelming, near-totally white, a fact that is further complicated by the narrative framing that gradually emerges.
Regardless of what you think of the drama itself – and plenty of people are going to dislike it – you can’t argue with the cast. Fisayo Akinade is the standout: his monologues give the drama a considered, emotional anchor, while he has a great cartoon display as one of America’s other controversial presidents. And special mention should go to Elliot Cowan, who presents Trump as both a lone ranger hero and delirious super-villain in the production’s most outlandish moments.
Shipwreck is preoccupied by the processes of the empathetic imagination, the potentially flawed ways in which we try and envision why someone could do something like vote for Trump, even if – or especially if – it goes against many of their personal beliefs. Or how certain groups discuss certain topics in private. Or how to carry the mental weight of slavery, the knowledge of those horrors, as a black person in America. It’s unwieldy, and inelegant, but boy, is there no-one out there like Anne Washburn.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Shipwreck is at Almeida Theatre from 11th February until 30th March 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.