Christopher Shinn’s new play grapples with big ideas. It revolves around one main protagonist, played excellently by Ben Whishaw. A Silicon Valley billionaire, Luke wakes up one day convinced that he’s been spoken to by God, and that God is telling him ‘to go where there’s violence’. What ensues is Luke’s journey to and through locations of violence, a journey that takes him from schools to American university campuses to prisons and so on.
The main problem with the play is embodied in that ironically economic phrase: ‘and so on’. In attempting to cover these three loci, Shinn spreads his subject too thinly. That is not to say that the endemic gun violence on American school campuses, the disgusting frequency of sexual assault and faculty negligence in American college grounds, and the abuse of power in the American prison system are not vital topics of conversation, but they’re too much for just one play. The documentary The Hunting Ground, Netflix series Orange is the New Black, and novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, at the very least, articulate cogent, challenging responses to these very real societal problems. Against, sadly, failes to level with its subject. It looks with too deep a gaze, where it should instead concentrate focus, tackling one issue coherently.
It is from such minutiae that Whishaw draws strength. His character is meticulously detailed – every hand gesture and blink has been carefully considered by the actor, drawn with deliberation in his construction of this ambiguous billionaire do-gooder. Whishaw is generally well supported by the cast: Amanda Hale’s subtly exasperated Sheila garners some welcoming laughs from the audience, and Fehinti Balogun and Kevin Harvey are similarly strong, dynamic performers.
Consequently, I really wanted to enjoy Against, I think theatre should challenge and make demands of its audience. I like the ideas and issues with which it struggles, but I don’t think it ever emerges victoriously from that struggle. The play asks real, compelling questions. It asks how we remember violence, how – or whether – we memorialise awful events, about what makes people commit violence in the first place, and what ‘the greater good’ is. At one point Luke states that to forget violence is to commit violence. The subtext of these words is recognisably poignant for this political moment: silence is complicity. The play answers this accusation by vocalising violence and issues around it, but it feels like no issue articulated is given enough time to really ‘speak’ with any depth. ‘Exclusion is a type of violence’, read another line. Okay, but not everything needs to be included in this play of two-hours-and-forty-five-minutes, because not everything can be.
Overall, a disappointing text hinders memorable performances and essential topic matter. 3/5
Review written by Alice Carlill.
Against is currently showing at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday 30th September 2017. For more information on the production, visit here…