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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Rupert Goold’s direction through this three-hour-five labyrinth paces us through Miriam Buether’s bare radial design in black wood, the audience seating rearranged. Knowles’ blue-shift lighting and other ghosted effects include candles and a central fire. Fly Davis’ costumes reflect casual, homestead, Whitehouse-smart or startlingly a six-pack exposed superman outfit, alongside Luke Halls’ sparing use of video. Similarly this is where Paul Arditti’s sound opens out.


‘From across the room I saw the President…. I screamed. I ran.’

In one sense the spooked storytelling and two-edged kookiness that Anne Washburn’s dramas invoke might stand as quintessentially American. Except that in a vintage of super-naturalists – Annie Baker, Emily Schwend, Nina Segal – Washburn stands almost alone in recent U. S. drama. One near exception’s Clare Barron, whose Dance Nation the Almeida mounted last September.


Shipwreck takes on the 45th President. Not flat-satirically, not even as some incarnate fiend, though he does appear thus, and the setting’s a snowbound upstate New York farmhouse where liberals gather and gibber. It’s rather Stephen King; or indeed Washburn’s own adaptation of stories from The Twilight Zone seen at the Almeida in 2017. Though Shipwreck features Washburn’s pellucid lyricism.


It’s 2017 here too, the moment James Comey gets fired from the CIA. Raquel Cassidy’s Jools is the host whose food-shopping lists never get realized, as husband Richard – Risteárd Cooper – gets stuck in snow three feet from the door. She greets a quartet with mouth-watering possibilities; only to end improvising iron rations from the deep freeze. Cassidy’s would-be host, the one who anchors the others’ fears, begins to drag from hapless to hopeless. It’s a performance of consummate tact against more vivid declarations.


Justine Mitchell’s Allie twitches digits as a tech-deprived liberal (all lost signals) as desperate as someone – yes, very Twilight Zone – lost in space. Berating everyone for not being more active in the Resistance, she admits she doesn’t follow through either. There’s a touch of The Ice Man Cometh, except the world knows him all too well. Mitchell’s radiant Allie casts heedless shadows, dissecting what cheerleader means.


There’s the ‘lower 1%’ wealthy lawyers, relentless Yusuf (Khalid Abdalla) and preppy Andrew (urbane foil Adam James). Abadalla’s Yusuf has a revelation about why he voted, and doubles as a chair-bound Comey waiting to be fired. In both roles he contrasts with everyone by showing a forensic slippery reasoning. And by contrast New York bohos Teresa (Tara Fitzgerald) and Jim (Elliot Cowan) add an angsty ballast. Both turn on the shared bond of parenthood and a symbiosis of imagery even when separated, that ebbs over the evening.


Though the talk’s all Trump – even Ivanka vs. Melania – it’s the characters’ responses that raise hackles. Not least reflecting on theatre’s failure to instigate political change. Washburn’s aesthetic is clear. If the form’s broken, break it open some more.


Shipwreck’s already about ten minutes faster. Rupert Goold’s sinewy direction through this three-hour-five labyrinth corners the beast, and paces us through Miriam Buether’s bare radial design in black wood, the audience seating rearranged. It’s a set that comes into its own when Jack Knowles’ candles are lit, or the circular core opens to admit a fire. With a tenebrous magic, the incantation of telling echoes Washburn’s post-apocalyptic Mr Burns, seen here in 2013.


Knowles’ blue-shift lighting and other ghosted effects also underscore the sheer fright of liberalism at bay. Fly Davis’ costumes reflect casual, homestead, Whitehouse-smart or startlingly a six-pack exposed superman outfit – Elliot Cowan’s shaman Trump here is a skirling tour-de-force, alongside Luke Halls’ sparing use of video flickering the Star and Stripes. Similarly this is where Paul Arditti’s sound opens out. Oh, and there’s pointy satanic headgear with cloaks for a quartet of acolytes. A totem pole and bearskin hang balefully up in the brick wall to remind us how much America’s been hunted to extinction already.


Though the arc of this drama admits wonderful set-pieces – a

quote from Yusuf about Trump’s fantasising generates its apotheosis with G W Bush and Trump circled in a boxing match over Iraq – we return to the farmhouse’s inhabitants. Here their liberalism’s picked apart, recriminations, regrets, rewrites scumble over each other. Jim and Teresa reflecting over the birth of their daughter speak antiphonally around a key word that Jim ends with: ‘the purity of your need looks like innocence.’ It’s this sashay through private and public fragility that makes Washburn’s response unique.


It doesn’t end there. The second act’s bright dark – food and candles dwindling as snow piles – scrapes back guilt: complicities and snap decisions snarling the liberalism we start with. The septet tire. Nerves and consciences get flayed and as nightmares start you’d swear Hunter S Thompson crossed H. P. Lovecraft and got cursed.


As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a parallel narrative – the end draws these two threads together. Risteárd Cooper as Lawrence a midwestern puritan homesteader, with Fisayo Akinade as his adopted son Mark, contemplate another response to Trump. Cooper’s meditation – specifically in 2016 – on essential values. His Kenyan-born son both metropolitan reflecting on how his and his father’s vote normally cancel each other. Then something occurs. Cooper’s impressive as Richard too, but his final monologue a Lawrence is especially strong. Akinade as Mark is all monologue and shines as a self-contained teller.


Shipwreck’s magical and maddening in unequal parts. There’s no doubt it could benefit from trimming and already the pace has picked up unusually quickly. If Mitchell as Allie, Cowan as Trump, Akinade and Cooper perhaps stand out, their roles give a little more. In truth it’s a superb ensemble piece. Of all dramas on these interesting times in America, it’s the one truly necessary: the most protean suggestive and likely to be revisited.