Helena Payne reviews Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck directed by Rupert Gould now playing at the Almeida Theatre.
19 February 2019
Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck at the Almeida is a long show and really feels it. Rupert Goold’s wacky yet amusing direction and fantastic performances by a uniformly strong cast do their best to make the play zing but it is at best overwritten and at worst annoyingly verbose and preachy. The play centres loosely on a Kenyan boy adopted by a White rust belt Christian American couple and the inevitable frictions between them in the age of Trump.
Most enjoyable is the synergy between Jack Knowles’ lighting and Miriam Buether’s set. The focus of the auditorium is a large circular table that also serves as the stage. Suspended above is a beautiful halo or ribbon of light which transforms gracefully to compliment the drama and at one point when the revolve is in use turns the whole theatre into a giant spinning zoetrope. At curtain up around the table are sat members of the audience intermingled with quite patently planted actors “milling.” It’s a cliché, I assume inferring that we, the audience, are also the players and complicit in the unfolding story. However, the problem with this show is that it is nearly all story; sincere narration and direct address. It feels like actors being asked to do TED talks about politics, Trump and race: literally no one’s idea of a good night out.
Justine Mitchell as a keyboard warrior stands out in her ability to find the much-needed humour in the script. Her delivery is dry and rambling and she captures the frustration of the English language’s limitations in trying to respectfully discourse on matters as sensitive and vital as identity and race politics. Khalid Abdalla gives a tempered performance as a gay Lawyer who exercised his power to vote Trump despite the protestations and horror of his partner and fellow educated elite liberals. Fisayo Akinade delivers a beautiful portrait of the adopted son and painfully explores the disconnection someone raised in a culture commonly disparate to their own race can feel. His character also makes important points about the difference between his experience as an adopted Kenyan to white American parents and his contemporaries who are the progeny of African American slaves. However, despite their best efforts, the homogenous writing style means all the characters fall into a similar pattern of linguistic tone and manner. We eventually learn that this can be explicated by the revelation that all the other characters are figments of the boy’s imagination, but this doesn’t make it any easier to listen to.
Shipwreck makes several pertinent points such as “art is much less effective when it’s direct,” most ironic for a play that feels every bit of its three hours of moralising. The complete conviction of the stellar cast saves this experiment from self-absorption and Luke Hall’s projections powerfully convey to us the blight and instant gratification of social media where most of us focus our canvassing and soap-boxing rather than doing anything physical and genuinely effective. Perhaps Washburn’s grotesque portrayal of Trump in velvet pants and gold body paint shocked audiences over the pond. In this country, however, most people, if cut open, bleed satire, thus blunting this intended climax.
Until 30 March 2019