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There is no question as to the scope and ambition of this play. Anne Washburn has decided to take on the United States today and she doesn’t leave any controversial stone unturned in this three hour no-holds-barred trip through the American psyche. This is a complex play and it takes a great director to steer it through treacherous waters. Rupert Goold is that man.
The story begins ‘Big Chill’ style: Moneyed liberals, Lawrence (Risteard Cooper) and Jools (Raquel Cassidy) are waiting to welcome their friends in their newly acquired upstate farm turned country house. Their enthusiasm is curbed by their continuing upset with the Trump presidency. Soon the friends, Jim (Elliot Cowan) and Yusuf (Khalid Abdalla) and Andrew (Adam James), Allie (Justine Mitchell) and Teresa (Tara Fitzgerald) join into an all too familiar conversation about current affairs starting with Ivanka Trump, James Comey and of course the president himself. The group ends up stuck inside the house by a snow storm and we begin to see different layers of truth and conflict emerge as supplies dwindle and hours go by. At one point, the hostess admits to being fed up with ‘taste’, in both senses of the word. It is a good stab at the convenient superficiality of the bien pensant ‘bougie’ way of life but the dialogue remains predictable, even when Yusuf admits that he voted for Trump.
In a completely different scene, we see two monologues, by a white father (Risteard Cooper doubles as Richard) and then by his adopted black son Mark played thoughtfully by Fisayo Akinade. In the first one, Richard explains that he thought his farm was a good place for a kid to grow up and that he and his wife decided to adopt a child from Kenya because they saw a TV show about orphans there and thought that coming from Africa would make the child’s blackness more acceptable in America. The second monologue turns the father’s assumptions on its head. Mark can’t help walking around the farm imagining what it would have been like to be a slave. He imagines in detail what it would have been like to be owned. To be whipped. To be hungry.
The scenes seem to be disconnected at first, a collage of moments in today’s America. Washburn imagines a farcical encounter between George W. and businessman Trump. She has Fisayo Akinade double as President Bush and Elliot Cowan does a Trump to compete with Alec Baldwin’s. He then morphs into Caligula Trump, complete with a gold wrestler’s belt and minions straight out of Dante’s inferno with vulture heads and dark capes. They are closing in on Khalid Abdalla as ex-FBI director James Comey, isolated on a hard chair in the middle of the stage. It is completely fantastical yet is a brilliant way of showing the difference between the civil servant who sacrifices his ego and selfish needs to become ‘an institution’ and the dictator who transcends nothing. Miriam Buether’s set is like a giant Lazy Susan rotating plate. It shows us the different ‘tastes’ of the national crisis, from the intimate dialogue focused dinner party to the extravagance of Caligula Trump now as a mythical native American chief in awe to himself standing in front of a fast and furious slideshow of recent events.
We go back to the father. Then to the son. Race, hypocrisy, democracy. The questions ‘Shipwreck’ raises are pertinent and real but they are not new. Are they more urgent today than they were before 2016? Or is it that the carpet of ‘taste’ that they used to be brushed under is now gone? I left the theatre awed but also a bit confused.
Shipwreck continues at the Almeida Theatre till 30th March, 2019