Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Review Against

by Christopher Shinn

A Silicon Valley Candide

In a world of quicksand, more and more divorced from "real" life by the screen, Luke emerges to tackle Something Big.  

We know tantalizingly little about him. He's a new tech billionaire. He's built his fortune on rockets, solar power, artificial intelligence. He was born abroad and his Dad died when he was young. 

And, he says, God has spoken him directly and told him to go where there is violence. 

Christopher Shinn's new picaresque drama is itself tantalizing and frustrating. It's set in America, a country which has always been an artificial construct of affiliated states. Once, it could be said, the perception of citizens was that the country was bound by the American Dream and family values. 

Now, this play seems to say, it's perceived as bound by motiveless violence and corporatism. As a college student says after a tutorial which has turned from her work to the social network of the tutor, "It feels off".

Shinn has written a play and a series of encounters where everything feels "off", where technology and higher education instead of increasing discovery and a sense of community makes everyone, whether they like it or not, adopt a self-enclosing agenda.

Ben Whishaw plays Luke who grows  literally more and more self-conscious as the story progresses. He's not so much a messiah as an ideal of neutrality and empathy which in the end he cannot possibly sustain.

In a world increasingly dominated by the binary and virtual reality which nevertheless cannot deny the frailty of flesh, Luke emerges unknowable and yet a human being brought up in strange times. 

A world where everyone can tell competing stories but many feel they have no voice. A world of ruthless competition, often under an over-polite exterior.  

Luke's journey starts in his own workplace and ends in the corporate warehouse of a business rival. His encounters begin with the parents of a schoolboy who has gone on the rampage at his school. 

Then a prison where a prisoner has become a victim. Here he also meets the gun-toting father of a child abused by a basketball coach before he moves on to a college campus with a history of mishandlng complaints of rape where a student latches on to him. 

He then listens patiently to the Big Ideas of a client of a drug dealer. His journey ends in an Amazon-like warehouse where the employees, at the mercy of an arbitrary hierachy where many are bosses but nobody is the boss, wear Guantanamo orange polo shirts packing goods and pricing them.

If this all sounds intangible, TLT has done her job in conveying what Against feels like. It has the sterile atmosphere of a human being, the undoubtedly delicately charismatic Whishaw, enmeshed in a computer game going from level to level. 

As is TLT's wont, she wondered whether it would work better on screen. Yet the play, directed by Ian Rickson, does remain, or maybe is pulled back to be, distinctly theatrical in shape even if it starts with a typical police procedural or TV news story crime scene. 

But, despite the fine performances and a structure shaped for the stage, it's also deeply unsatisfying at a rather deep psychological as well as theatrical level.  Maybe it's because it manipulates vocabulary and character in a rather algorithmic way.

Besides Whishaw, there's intricately calibrated work from Naomi Wirthner's anguished mother of a killer,  Kevin Harvey as a rather dangerous professor in charge of student minds, Adelle Leonce as a conflicted warehouse worker, Emma D'Arcy as the student who becomes a boy scoutish acolyte of Luke and Fehinti Balogun, as the fellow student of the school shooter, who admits to trying to manipulate his friend's emotions.   

There's pared back design by ULTZ using the brick walls of the  Almeida - a simple wooden floor, often only chairs and eventually a white bed rising up in the second act keep it simple. 

Yet this is a play and a Candide-like fable in the end held together by characters and their traits while the plot remains not just elusive but irritatingly so. It's an amber light.

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