Almeida Theatre, London – until 20 September 2017
GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES HUNGERS BUT DOESN’T GET A BYTE … I’ll give them this; it’s timely. After the violence in Charlottesville, we’ve all been asking what on earth is happening with American society. Christopher Shinn’s Against has a Silicon Valley billionaire asking the same question, and has the cash and the sense of entitlement to march round the country trying to find out.
The Almeida – almost certainly the best stage in Zones 1 or 2 – has given way to the shiny wooden floor and fashionably dusty brick wall of an Apple Store in 2009. Ben Whishaw is Luke; a nondescript standard tech billionaire preoccupied with what we’d expect. Artificial Intelligence, transport, medicine, whatever. He talks in platitudes, but I think the playwright doesn’t recognise them as such.
He has that strange evangelical streak we increasingly see in tech leaders, but this is more than a bubbling sense of social justice or philanthropy. Strangely for this godless valley, Luke has been talking to the Man Upstairs. “Go to violence”, God tells him, so Luke starts a “project”, a website (the details of which are always glossed over).
He sets out on a tour of the USA to hear from people, chronicle their experiences of violence and generally stare at them like a puppy. The issue? There are too many issues. A play is never going to drill down to recognisable truth if it takes wild shots at the conscience of the tech industry, gun violence at schools, sex, sex work, addiction, prisons, workers’ rights, wealth, and family. Each is given a glib going over, and that’s the only meat on offer. The first (a school shooting) starts well. It even had the early tinglings of a thriller. But we are quickly moved on, and it’s not mentioned again.
The thread which supposedly weaves all this together, Luke ’s curious relationship with a colleague, is frustratingly flat. None of this is lifted by Ian Rickson’s direction. A final shootout flits between huddles and stories we’ve followed, and is quite snappy. But the rest is stodgy. As if they’ve had a jolly good time tossing all 15,000 ideas around in the rehearsal room, but come up with little. There are flashes of humanity: the play quite refreshingly wears it’s sexual impulses on its sleeve and some of the incidental characters (Elliot Barnes-Worrell as a manual worker fan of Luke’s, Kevin Harvey as the most outrageously camp lefty University tutor and Naomi Wirthner as the tormented mother of a student shooter), but these glimpses don’t exactly make 2hrs 50 fly by.
Whishaw himself suits the mellow manners of a humble billionaire; uncomfortable away from a computer, stumbling through life. But where’s the range? There’s as much character in his crisp polo and bright white trainers as in his face. His charisma supposedly draws the masses of smalltown America (a touch of Jesus) and makes them divulge their lives to him. But none of that allure reaches the stalls.
This is clearly one of the most fruitful subject areas of our time. There’s been some incredible writing on the social responsibility of the tech world (not least from Jamie Bartlett) and how it’s possibly waking up to it. The motives of people like Mark Zuckerberg, who actually has toured the country to listen to people, are ripe for artistic investigation.
This play talks a lot about the difference between knowing and feeling, and journalism, when these people are so cagey, can take us only so far. A play could burrow further. Annoyingly, after this one neither knows nor feels.
Box Office 020 7359 4404 Until 30th September