It’s often said about great actors that audiences would be happy to see them “read the phonebook”. Christopher Shinn’s Against makes that case eloquently for Ben Whishaw who, through the sheer skill he brings to the task, makes the experience of seeing the play much more interesting and pleasurable than it has any prospect of otherwise being.
I was supposed to do more than that. I was supposed to change the culture – and it’s exactly the same – our consumption, our discourse, our apathy – our diversions – I think – I have to be much more radical. Fully step down from my companies. Do something about my investments and assets – all of it. Turn over some tables – really show people that I’m not here to maintain the status quo – that we have to change – I need to disappear – get out of the public eye until we figure out a different way.
Despite the misgivings generated by the Donmar’s Teddy Ferrara, there was a palpable excitement about Christopher Shinn’s new play, Against. Partly that was because of the star – Ben Whishaw, a notable actor and one who has good form at the Almeida. Partly it was because of Director Ian Rickson’s recent track record. Partly, it was because the Almeida has been on a wave of success since Rupert Goold became Artistic Director, with recent triumphs including Ink, Hamlet and Mary Stuart, all of which have or will transfer to the West End.
Alas, not even Whishaw can make Against an evening at the theatre to remember. But he does provide the real – perhaps only – reason to see Rickson’s production of Against now playing at the Almeida. He effortlessly establishes why he is a star and a tremendous stage performer – two things that don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Like any good messiah figure, and his character, Luke, is definitely that, albeit one with a Silicon Valley backstory, Whishaw’s performance is spellbinding.
What is Against about? In a very simple way, it is a modern retelling of at least part of the story of Jesus, his disciples and impact on the world. In another way, it is a discussion about the many ways in which the world is falling into disrepair, almost certainly never to recover.
Shinn’s play is curious. It goes out of its way to be ordinary, banal almost, rather than lyrical or extraordinary. There is no real sense of drama, either delicate or profound. Luke is a Silicon Valley God who descends from his lofty aerospace billionaire cloud and, in the vaguest way possible, sets out to try and understand, perhaps confront, violence – in its many-headed modern forms.
Luke has so much money he can go anywhere and do anything he likes. He sets his own rules and can bankroll them. Of course, with this unfettered freedom comes consequences – can he love another human? Does he actually want to do that? Can he effectively masturbate? Can he connect victims of violence and find ways to ease their lot? Or does his inability to understand other, simpler, less demanding lives prevent him not just from committing to love but from understanding life?
Against the angst-ridden mastication that is Luke’s odyessy into the emotions of non Silicon Valley supremos, Shinn sets concerns about Amazon and its never-ending reach and changes to retail trade worldwide – Shinn calls the far-reaching enterprise Equator, but it’s a lame deceit. Notions about conventional marriage and unconventional marriage, the expectations of cancer victims in the modern age, the vagaries of higher education, the question of legalising addictive drugs, and the minefield that is sexual politics in the 21st Century – all of these balls are in the air as Shinn juggles the chapters in Luke’s descent into danger.
It is never really clear what Shinn’s purpose was in penning Against. If his point is that nothing can derail modern society’s intention to self-destruct, there are easier, shorter ways to make that point. If his point is something else – perhaps that modern society is obsessed with itself and can’t get out of its self-dug trenches – again, there must be better, more theatrical ways for that discussion to run.
If Shinn has an expertise, it is in capturing the essence of normality in his writing. His scenes involving ordinary people ring true, their lives, their phrases, their moods, all resonate as unaffected, rigorously ordinary. There is one scene with the demanding mother of a cancer patient which aches with intense normality; another involving the parents of a youngster who shot dead his fellow students is equally well observed.
But, Against does not amount to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Despite astute direction and mostly excellent performances, as well as production values that could scarcely be bettered, Against just doesn’t overcome its inherent dullness. It never compels. Sadly.
Whishaw does his absolute best to compel and largely succeeds. Every moment he is on stage there is electric interest. Given the detail with which he imbues Luke, you come to expect a significant pay-off. But it never arrives. Luke’s interest, ultimately, is his lack of interest in the right things. In that, Luke stands for modern man.
There are other excellent actors in play here too. Nancy Crane, a Teddy Ferrara survivor, is in good form as Luke’s mother, a campus Dean and a perturbed policewoman. Fehinti Balogun strikes an impressive note as Tim, the boy who turned on the one-day-in-the-future-gunman Tom, and then a very different note as druggie Dan. Naomi Wirther is marvellous as two quite different mothers, bringing the zest of life to both.
Amanda Hale, however, succumbs to dreariness as Luke’s maybe love interest, Sheila, although she fares better as the girl he left behind years ago, Kate. Gavin Spokes impresses as the truck driver with immortality on his mind.
Ultz’ set design is spare but effective, delineating scenes with a sure simplicity. Excellent lighting from Charles Balfour proves potent and Gregory Clark’s sound design punctuates the narrative in ways that are both silky and startling.
Rickson gives Shinn’s play a glossy treatment. It is difficult to imagine how it could be improved and with Whishaw in superb form, the words have a glow imposed upon them by skills greater than the author’s. No doubt the violence sewn into the fabric of Society needs unpicking – but Against provides no signposts or inspirations for that worthy task.