james debate
james debate

Sunday 14 April 2019

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Anne Washburn
Starring Khalid Abdalla, Fisayo Akinade, Raquel Cassidy, Adam James
Theatre Almeida

shipwreck almeida trump anne washburn burns twilight zone rupert goold comey

Anne Washburn is proving to be somewhat hit or miss as a playwright, and sometimes both in the same play.

Washburn's playwriting style is essentially the anti-Stanislavski (the pioneer of naturalism), with stories that are not intended to be taken as a depiction of actual events, but an exploration of concepts, and characters that are not intended to represent real people, but act as mouthpieces for the various points of view she wishes to explore. It makes for theatre that can be as intellectually provocative to critics and drama students, as it is grating and stilted for regular patrons.

This was very much the case with a recent play of Washburn's, Mr Burns. The concept here was a post-apocalyptic world in which stories and bits of pop culture become valued commodities traded between communities. As a high level concept it's not bad, but the way in which Washburn wrote it was so grating; long, drawn out scenes of the most boring and repetitive dialogue, like that one friend of yours who always repeats the same joke from a TV show until it stops being funny. Her new play Shipwreck is written in much the same way.

Shipwreck ostensibly follows two separate narrative strands: one in which a group of friends make a retreat to a remote cabin, and become embroiled in the world's most tedious political discussions; the other a series of monologues which explore the struggles of an American midwestern couple raising a refugee child. The latter of these two strands is actually competently written and does lead somewhere satisfying in the end, however it composes probably no more than 10% of the production, with most of the rest being dedicated to the former.

Don't get me wrong, politics in 2016 is a topic that is ripe for source material, and many plays have attempted politics and pulled it off successfully. Shipwreck contrasts these efforts as a golden example of how not to do political theatre.

These scenes in the cabin invariably feature some (and I say this as someone vehemently anti-Trumpist) pompous jackass regaling everyone with the latest Trump outrage that they heard on the news ("Can you believe how much Trump lies?!", "Have you heard how he fired Comey?!"). There is no subtlety here, as with a play like Albion. It's literally just a group of stilted mouthpieces for the author repeating Rachel Maddow zingers, and ranting at the audience as if the author feels some need to edify the ignorant masses.

The main problem here is twofold: Firstly, there is no story or point to these scenes that justifies what we're watching. Most of us go to the theatre to see a story or some worthwhile artistic expression, not just some person's Twitter thread adapted to script. Secondly, the writer has nothing particularly insightful or interesting to say beyond simply "Trump is awful, why aren't you angry?!" (and again, I say this as a notably outspoken critic of his regime). The references in the dialogue are banal and superficial, and yet they are dissected at an excruciatingly glacial pace with all the smugness of someone who is under some misapprehension that they are privy to some great wisdom that they must impart to the rest of us.

The result is that anyone who is knowledgeable about politics will find  this all trite and laboured, and anyone who is not will find it condescending. If Washburn is legitimately trying to edify her audience, then she is nowhere near as clever or insightful as she thinks. If she is ironically trying to show how annoying people are when they talk politics, then well done, but either way it doesn't make good theatre.

The saving grace of Mr Burns was its final act, in which all the hitherto superficially explored themes were brought together in a dazzling and visually striking setpiece which saw a classic Simpsons skit reinterpreted as some horror thriller, complete with a Greek chorus, full band, and incorporating elements and details from all manner of different pop culture sources. It certainly didn't justify sitting through three hours of tedium, but it showed that Washburn is capable of some truly original, visionary work. Shipwreck pulls the same trick with two spectacular scenes, one at the end of each act and for which I have awarded this play one star each.

The first expands on one of the Trump lies that forms the focus of much of the first act, that he was some firebrand anti-war activist fighting tooth and nail against the Bush administration to prevent the Iraq war. What follows is a depiction of a dashing, young and idealistic Trump (reinterpreted as some Tony Stark-esque figure) whose power and popularity so threatens the establishment that then President Bush visits him in Trump tower and begs him to back down. A hilariously schlocky battle of wits ensues, resulting in a slow motion bare knuckle mano-a-mano for the soul of the country. It's well-staged, tightly written, and hilarious.

The second of these scenes imagines the now infamous meeting with James Comey in which Trump asked then FBI Director Comey to pledge personal loyalty to him. Here, Trump is reimagined as some mad Aztec God-Emperor, prancing about the stage in absurd looking robes and headdress, while he is flanked by ghoulish masked cultists who obey his every whim. It's an astonishing bit of theatre, and actually one of the better analogies I have yet seen for this administration.

And so we end with his paradox of a playwright. Someone who is clearly capable of breathtaking vision and finely honed writing, and who nevertheless pads her plays with 90% pure tedious dreck. I suspect that the answer is that this is a play intended more for critics and students to analyse than for anyone to actually go and enjoy. The best plays manage to be both.

Newer Post Older Post Home