Review: POWER OF SAIL, Menier Chocolate Factory

Paul Grellog’s cancel culture academia thriller has its UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

By: Apr. 02, 2024
Review: POWER OF SAIL, Menier Chocolate Factory
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Review: POWER OF SAIL, Menier Chocolate Factory Early in Power of Sail, we learn it’s firmly set in 2019. A mere year later, the world would face a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and online misinformation reaching its peak as right-wing have been given bigger platforms to express their hate under the guise of freedom of speech. Still facing the ramifications today, perhaps that’s why the Menier Chocolate Factory decided to stage Paul Grellog’s play that gained notoriety at The Geffen Playhouse in 2022. Even five years after the play’s setting, it still feels wholly relevant.

“I’m one of the good guys” Harvard professor and self-proclaimed free speech absolutist Charles Nichols declares as he defends his reasons for inviting far-right White Nationalist Benjamin Carver to speak at an annual symposium as we hear the faint yet clear chants of student protesters. As we watch for the next 100 minutes, we learn that he, along with the rest of the characters, are far from perfect. While we never see Benjamin Carver himself, his presence is still felt in their discussions.

Grellong’s snappy dialogue and Dominic Dromgoole’s direction keep the play punchy, but it feels too short to fully discuss the topics with the true nuance they deserve. There’s the complicity of Ivy League higher educators covering up wrongdoings to prevent the institution from “looking bad” while claiming they stand for justice. A PhD and graduate student on both ends of the political spectrum vye for placements while discussing safe spaces and convoluted “white genocide”. A Black student gets shot and Charles asks Black colleague Baxter to write a letter to show what a good person he is. Playing out more as a series of debates than a cohesive narrative, there’s a feeling of loss when they don’t reach a full conclusion.

Review: POWER OF SAIL, Menier Chocolate Factory
Tanya Franks (Amy Katz) and Julian Ovenden (Charles Nichols)

Paul Farnsworth’s sleek set captures the prestige of an Ivy League campus, with oak panels transforming into different locations from Nichols’ cushy professorial office to a cafe as online conspiracy theories are projected across them. A ship motif dominates the former, fitting for the title but not entirely clear in this narrative (the title refers to nautical law saying a power of motor ship must give way to a power of sail ship).

The always charismatic Julian Ovenden is captivating as Charles, mocking his students for coming into college in pyjamas one minute and full of anguish the next as he rationalises his reasons for platforming such a figure as Benjamin Carver with sayings that become more hollow. Giles Terera (Hamilton) is biting as media professor Baxter, but he only functions to catch other characters’ refutes with a slick comeback. Tanya Franks makes Jewish dean Amy feel rounded especially when next to Kate Bernstein’s Maggie, who brings much needed gusto to her role. Michael Benz makes a striking contrast as incel Lucas, complaining about code switching in cis white men.

Power of Sail shows promise thanks to a gripping cast and subject matter, but it doesn’t quite sink its teeth into them as much as it should. It’s certainly one that will challenge audiences during these times of so-called culture wars and right-wing pundits getting bigger platforms to spread their hate as free speech, but maybe those conversations will be better discussed after watching the show.

Power of Sail is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 12 May

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlen