FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Ian Rickson Against is the first play of Christopher Shinn’s seen in the UK since Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar in 2015. ULTZ’s set unwraps its minimalist flexibility, Charles Balfour’s lighting fading the glare to a human scale, with Mark Bradshaw’s music underscoring junctures and human crossings fed by Gregory Clark’s sound. We’re frequently subjected to Robin Fisher’s video as narrative. Imogen Knight’s movement keeps the episodic picaresque flowing. Till September 30th.
Christopher Shinn’s 2015 Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar reminds us how often polemical plays in America need institutions to coil their dialectic up like springs. If you want an argument, there’s a university and as here a vast corporation to bounce off.
Here though in Against, directed by Ian Rickson with ULTZ’s flexible minimalist set, Shinn works as it were against the containment and controlled implosion of his earlier play and follows Luke (Ben Whishaw) a Silicon Valley-type rocket geek trekking to enlightenment, a coup de foudre from God’s voice to go where violence is.
It couldn’t of course be more prescient in the time of Trump, a Bowling for Columbine of the mind. How do we discuss the violence within ourselves, the violence abhorring violence full of paradoxical intent? It’s clear a pacey tightly-plotted play won’t unfurl here, though it’s narratively structured to a careful series of revisits. Nor is this the meticulous naturalism of for instance Annie Baker’s The Flick, another recent tradition. It’s a picaresque self-education harking back to the eighteenth century: a Bildingsroman with a bang.
ULTZ’s set begins with a crime scene cleared recalling the Almeida’s Richard III disinterment last year, Charles Balfour’s lighting fading the glare to a human scale, with Mark Bradshaw’s music underscoring junctures and human crossings fed by Gregory Clark’s sound. We’re frequently subjected to Robin Fisher’s video as narrative spanning of Luke’s journey and when he stops up short outside some rich or poor person’s gate and squats to consider why.
Whishaw’s presence – nervy, strained, anxious and wide-eyed – epitomizes the kind of visionary Silicon Valley insist on producing: the geek who wants to globalise us for our own good. Cue Uber, Air B&B, all those labour-saving and labour-enslaving notions, and here a company called Equator, created by Luke’s old school-friend Jon, the first of Kevin Harvey’s two suave roles. Like Amazon it specialises in dispatching orders the world over.
The journey Luke doesn’t know he’s making we realize is with helpmeet Sheila, Amanda Hale’s doggedly loyal and loving companion to whom Luke can’t acknowledge exclusive love. Not that he’s otherwise sexually active, or indeed without mutually intense sexual feelings for Sheila. The Jesus bit is disposed of by Shinn anxious perhaps of too many parallels, and the way Hale and Whishaw bounce off each other, flinch, retract and finally take shuddering steps is the most touching element of a play loaded against intense personal drama.
Not that that precludes other narratives and encounters, just that they’ll be vignettes and satires, though excellent. You just occasionally wish these could be melded and collided to a richer plotting, but that’s not what Shinn’s about.
What he does provides an eddy of disquiet as Luke squats outside a house where Tom a troubled teenager has shot dead classmates and talks to his parents with diametrically opposed reactions; then Tom’s ex-school-friend Tim (Fehinti Balogun) who thinks his rejection might have caused Tom to act. Shinn inserts fable so an act of emotional cruelty improves the perpetrator’s life just as it somehow blights Tom, whose emblematic use of a watch gets trailed as a lietmotif. The savage delicacy of this is etched; following its parallels is difficult.
Other sites are more lightly traced. Rape at a university campus more concentrates on Emma d’Arcy’s Anna troubled by her creative writing professor’s attempts to twist her already radical lifestyle into a reactionary judgement on herself. Harvey – turning suave to menacing camp – twirls the Professor’s previous life as a male prostitute into paradoxical oppression. Here it’s of someone he wishes to force into a more radical sexual pattern than she already vigorously expounds.
Shinn’s comedy etches an even-handed approach to cultural fascism residing in ultra-liberal elites, even its sexual politics. Anna serves as Luke’s first tangible groupie though, and this ratchets up the stakes as Luke comes to terms with his inadequacies, a conundrum about talking to a dying young man confronted by the man’s mother (like Tom’s mother played with gravitas and appeal by Naomi Wirthner), and a sudden decision to avoid his scheduled Equator meeting with Jon attending, in favour of a junkie with wisdom, according to his supplier. Repercussions abound.
One involves a subplot with packers Tracey (the excellent Adele Leonce fresh from the Royal Court’s Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch) who shimmies round the more upright Melvyn, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, a male follower of Luke’s. Having been hit on by the manipulative supervisor (a grimily intrusive Martin McDougall) she finds relief with Melvyn, and their oppressed affair counterpoints Luke’s and Sheila’s, indeed is marked by events, not always for the worse. The bleakness of working conditions is another of Shinn’s planetary observations from the blinding sun of Luke’s moral rocketry, though orbits in a discrete pattern.
Withdrawal to his mother’s house – one of Nancy Crane’s roles – brings on a meeting with school flame Kate, another exploration of intimacy with Amanda Hale, sending Luke back to her alter ego. By this time it’s Luke and Sheila who hold attention; the rest is politics. D’Arcy’s character Anna is the one whose development is the most tantalising, and most frustratingly sketchy. Anna collides with a clutch of others arriving for the denouement at Equator, which turns into quite another. But it’s Hale’s and Whishaw’s portrayal of a relationship, fragile, funny (especially public and private sex discussions) tautened over neglect and annealed by realisation, that lingers most.
Some fine vignettes taken by Phillippe Spall most notably as Chris the supplier, his visionary friend Dan (Balogun again unfurling a rocket to Mars) and Gavin Spokes as truck driver collide with convincing accident and accidie thanks to Imogen Knight’s movement as well as Rickson’s direction, though this freewheeling play raises more hells than it seeks to answer.
Clearly Against addresses the nature of neo-liberalism and competitive environments breeding violence and casualties, writ large. It’s not clear if Shinn wishes to critique just American capitalism for this, as the local oppressor amongst other systems. Even Luke has his limits. Nevertheless it’s a brave sad update to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1960s refrain: They’ve All Come to Look for America. It just needs a more compelling hook like that, the grand American narrative withering into truth. The ballad of Luke and Sheila though haunts its refrain.