Almeida Theatre, London – until 30 March 2019
Traipsing through the streets of Islington on our way to the theatre on a chilly winter’s evening we spotted an estate agent advertising quaint holiday cabins for sale in the Swiss Alps. A jolly jaunt of a buy for the discerning upper-middle-class couple from the affluent boroughs of London. These surroundings seem apt for Anne Washburn’s latest offering, Shipwreck, a marathon play that takes direct aim at the Trump administration.
A group of middle-aged, upper-middle-class liberals congregate at the newly bought mountainside house of couple, Jools and Richard. No heating, no lighting, no food or drink, and at threat of being snowed in, our intrepid socialists indulge in a rustic adventure, playing at debating and progressive one-upmanship.
Naturally, these discussions predominantly take the form of Trump-bashing. Washburn takes easy pot-shots at Trump’s sexism, racism, terrible business sense, and quasi-incestuous relationship with Ivanka. So far, there is little that you wouldn’t hear on social media, UK panel shows, or satirical newswipes such as The Daily Show – except it’s nowhere near as funny.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of intrigue; one character points out that the biggest lie Trump ever told is largely brushed aside as it doesn’t profit the left to criticise it (the statement in question refers to Trump having warned George W. Bush numerous times about the disadvantages of going to war in the Middle East).
The character in question, Yusuf (Khalid Abdalla), is the most interesting of the group (incidentally, he’s also the only non-white person amidst the friends). His testimony as to why he voted for Trump seems at once to make sense while also being incendiary within his social circle.
There are also some neat musings on art and theatre in particular. The group debate the merits of analogy and allusion, and the ways they can skewer the present socio-political climate while being entertaining. This discussion, however, is brief. Perhaps Washburn included it as an attempt at playful meta-theatricality, as Shipwreck carries little, if any, aspect of allusion.
Soon we’re back to decrying Trump head-on in a tirade of high school debate club-style sermons. Personally, I loathe Trump, but even I was beginning to roll my eyes in the sheer incessancy of the verbal attack. Maybe this is the intended effect, that Washburn is mirroring back to us all of our self-indulgent, dull, righteous political inactivity.
Washburn is at her best when tackling politics and culture with her trademark surrealism. I adored Mr Burns in all its extravagance and the way it pushed the boundaries of low and high culture. The Twilight Zonesimilarly showed off a formal brilliance in terms of the possibilities of what theatre can be. Here, Washburn only gives the lightest of touches to this impish theatricality in a couple of stand-out scenes involving an action hero version of Trump, bedecked in superhero regalia, a golden lustre in lieu of his trademark tango permatan. Director Rupert Goold and Elliot Cowan (as the main man himself) clearly have a lot of fun in these scenes, parodying but not impersonating Trump, transforming him into a maniacal bond-villain during his interrogation of disgraced FBI Director, James Comey (Abdalla, again).
For all the protagonists’ humble-bragging and do-gooding, Shipwreck lacks diversity in its collective voice. Washburn does seem to acknowledge this when one character lambasts another for claiming to speak for ‘black people’. In an attempt to counter this, for want of a better word, ‘Whiteness’, the play is interspersed with the recollections and musings of Mark (Fisayo Akinade). Mark considers his upbringing as an African child adopted by white Americans. Feeling adrift from his white social and cultural surroundings and alienated from his African heritage, Mark often imagines life as a slave as a means of understanding the suffering and inherent disadvantages of racial distinction. These scenes are powerful, not least due to Akinade’s candid and unaffected performance, yet there remains, for me, a sense of unease regarding the exploration of race relations being issued from a white playwright.
Throughout, Mark’s scenes and those of the snow-stranded liberals seem unrelated, making the play feel disjointed and directionless. However, what I assume is supposed to be an ‘Ah, now I get it!’ moment, fell flat and didn’t seem to have the impact Washburn intended. The play remains aimless, plotless and only marginally entertaining. Aside from Mark, none of the characters feel at all sympathetic, which admittedly may be ‘the point’, but that doesn’t take away that fact we had to spend over three hours in their company. I could draw comparisons to Brecht in Washburn’s didactic lecturing, but Shipwreck failed to convince me of anything new and I feel that, unfortunately, as a rallying cry of rebellion against oppression, social media is a more productive facilitator of this in the modern age.
Shipwreck plays at the Almeida until 30thMarch.Khalid Abdalla, Fisayo Akinade, Justine Mitchell and the cast of Shipwreck.
Credit: Marc Brenner.