Review: AGAINST, Almeida Theatre

By: Aug. 19, 2017
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The incident tent, the police tape: a sickeningly familiar sight, made fresh yet again by the tragic events of this week. But that very familiarity, and the tendency of one event to be swiftly superseded by another in the public consciousness, is a major issue tackled by Christopher Shinn's ambitious new epic. What is at the root of violence, and if we never stop to address that, how can humanity ever hope for a better future?

Ben Whishaw returns to the Almeida to play Luke, an Elon Musk/Mark Zuckerberg-esque Silicon Valley billionaire genius. He's stepped away from building rockets and developing AI after receiving a message from God: "Go where there's violence". Journalist Sheila, who's just finished working with Luke on a book, is concerned about the response to making that public. Tackle violence, sure, but keep the God part on the DL.

But as Luke visits communities reeling from violence - a school shooting, college campus rapes, guards killing an inmate in prison - his project is increasingly met with religious fervour, and Luke himself takes on messianic status.

Of course, many of those with the godlike power to shape our world today are figures like Luke - or Jon, whose sinister company Equator is a thinly veiled version of Amazon. Luke doesn't relish that power, in fact he's troubled by the idea that his comparative wealth and fame are types of violence in a society riven by inequality, yet the play's unease about our corporate or tech deities remains.

The problem is that Shinn, like his searching protagonist, is open to so many ideas that Against lacks the focus needed for an effective drama. Sketched-in subplots jostle for space: exploited low-level employees, prejudice towards sex workers, the loss of blue-collar jobs to technology, the moral murkiness of advocating for convicts who may have committed terrible acts, like raping children.

There's also a semi-satirical thread about the PC culture of universities and modern dating (polyamory has a hard time of it), as well as different responses to trauma and conflicts in liberal discourse. On the personal side, there's the difficulty of connecting with one another: Luke's examination of why violence seems unavoidable becomes as much about his own inability to handle intimacy.

But this unwieldy amount of material makes for an explicit, exposition-heavy script, sometimes more ethics debate than drama - if thoughtfully presented in Ian Rickson's sleek staging, which places the focus on those who articulate Shinn's arguments. Ultz's minimalist design is also well suited to the multiple scenes changes.

An excellent cast fills in the blanks of Shinn's characters, led by the quietly magnetic Whishaw. Uniformed in a dark polo shirt and trousers and white trainers, he's an unobtrusive figure, gently and non-judgementally welcoming to all-comers, but that very openness makes him mesmeric.

But in private, the increasingly monastic Luke doesn't feel able to physicalise his relationship with Sheila - Amanda Hale beautifully conveying a thwarted yearning in every appearance - and there's a nice ambiguity about whether his earnest, cerebral self-examination is benevolent or inherently selfish.

Emma D'Arcy is superb as the awkward college student deeply affected by Luke, Nancy Crane brilliantly delivers several characters, Kevin Harvey provides comic relief as a zealous creative writing professor and Jeff Bezos send-up, Adelle Leonce and Elliot Barnes-Worrell are touching in an intimate thread with shades of The Flick, and Fehinti Balogun delivers one of the more compelling scenes, as a friend of the school shooter unburdens himself to Luke.

Tonally, the piece is a little unsure - or at least the press night audience was unsure in response to Rickson's production, as the script jumps from nuanced discussion of tragedy to broad satire and the odd hoary gag (easy potshots at Millennials; Mum struggling with the TV remote). But its reaching for faith - in humanity, if not in a particular religion - is certainly well-intentioned, and as good a response as any to a world that feels increasingly troubled.

Against at Almeida Theatre until 30 September

Photo credit: Johan Persson