23rd August 2017
Christopher Shinn came to my attention just last year, with the Donmar Theatre's fascinatingly clear production of his ‘Teddy Ferrara'. Before the performance, I was lucky enough to be asked to join a group of audience members in a workshop based on ideas and themes from the play; we were a rag-taggle assemblage of unlikely characters, drawn together by an arbitrary common interest in new writing for the stage, and arguably an openness towards unusual ways of looking at people and their relationships, combined with a sensitivity about social justice and equality. Although I didn't know it at the time, that sort of provided the perfect introduction to this writer: Shinn seems focussed on what happens when strangers are thrown together – and against each other; then he adapts and modifies his reactions in an organic, unpredictable way, making structural and formal decisions based on what arises moment by moment. His is a bold and inventive voice and I was delighted to discover the Almeida picking up his next work, this play.
The Almeida have done Shinn proud: the production is staged with protean fluency by Ian Rickson (the author has also written extensively for The Royal Court), supported magically with movement by Imogen Knight, and is realised on the stage in starkly simple designs by Ultz – changing locations being flashed up brilliantly in immense surtitles, lit perfectly by Charles Balfour, with vividly portable video mock-ups of news clips by Robin Fisher, and a finely judged score by Mark Bradshaw heard in a wonderfully enveloping sound design by Gregory Clark. With a team as fine as this, even if you know nothing else about the play, you have to ask yourself: what is it that these people find so fascinating in the work?
We begin with a bare confrontation between a man and a woman: Ben Wishaw (a main draw for the presentation, whose face looms large, even iconically in the foyer) is Luke, a wealthy, innovative philanthropist, who is setting out on an apparently mystically inspired mission to ‘Go where violence is', much to the disconcerted misgivings of the first of Amanda Hale's parts, Sheila. Their scenes bookend different segments of the play, and of their relationship, with the most elegant theatrical sensibility; Shinn's interest in exploiting the formal properties of drama gets serious attention here. Most of the cast play multiple roles, yet for much of the time you'd be hard pressed to spot the doubling, so well written is each part, and so well placed in the overall structure: and although the beginning of the play is slow, almost in Sarah Kane territory, it gradually picks up pace, and scale, enlarging almost exponentially, absorbing ever more elaboration of the precepts laid down in that initial conversation.
Naomi Wirthner and Martin McDougall appear as parents of a troubled and trigger-happy teenager, and Fehinti Balogun's Tim reinforces this, to an extent, but turns the story around to examine it from his own angle; but just when you think the play might be treading the same territory as ‘The Events', off it goes into further directions. We see more and more of the traumatised Connecticut town, and everyone we meet has their own approach, and their own agenda. Luke's quest to get to the bottom of what happened reminds us, perhaps, a little of ‘In Cold Blood'. But no sooner have we made that confident decision that we become aware of an almost uniform criticism that is being voiced about each one of the characters we encounter: Shinn here seems animated by an Ibsen-like anger, a fury at society's complacency, self-satisfaction, and readiness to apportion blame on others, but never to take it upon itself.
Nancy Crane, Philippe Spall, Gavin Spokes all turn up as a variety of characters in this horrid parade of small-town values, each one of them extremely well drawn: yes, Shinn uses conventions, but he always has something new to do with them, not least of these being the splendid example of having Luke sit down to a positively Shavian third act discourse on the nature of money and the self with drug addicts Dan and Chris (Balogun and Spall). Emma D'Arcy lodges even more firmly in the mind as a kind of female counterpart to Luke, and one to whom we more insistently warm, Anna: a student trying to articulate her ideas on a positively gruesome Creative Writing course, run by a hideously self-serving – and wonderfully comic – passive-aggressive academic, Kevin Harvey (who, in turn, gets to reappear as the voice of hi-tech modernity). Many of these characters – not least the satirised tutor – seem familiar from ‘Teddy Ferrara', but Shinn is wildly more ambitious here, pushing out the reach of his dramatic scope, and ever more delightedly enmeshing more and more people of the world into the self-righteous mess they have created.
The increase in humour and emotional temperature is a welcome feature of the play as it lurches onwards: Elliot Barnes-Worrell's Melvyn and Adele Leonce's Tracy become a new centre of gravity in this, and indeed they do get the last word. Well, the last so far. I somehow think that we will be hearing a great, great deal more from Christopher Shinn. And that title: does it possibly echo the famous decadent parable, ‘A rebours'? Huysmans is never too far from our mind, still less when we reflect upon the programme's referral to Trevor Cribben Merrill (sometime collaborator with Jean-Michel Oughourlian) and George Monbiot. This is a magnificent, epic, intellectual and heart-felt play in a superb production, full of insight and truth, written with a masterful sense of theatrical balance and economy. Bravo to the Almeida!
Until 30 September