Friday 1 September 2017


Almeida, London
30th August, 2017, matinee

Against: (preposition) In competition with; In contact with by leaning; Into sudden contact or collision with; In opposite direction to. The word’s clustered consonant sounds seem a little odd when the word is spoken. Why has Christopher Shinn given his play this title? Perhaps it sums up the essence of violence. The play’s protagonist, a Silicon Valley billionaire tech guru-turned philanthropist named Luke, goes against the status quo by travelling the world on a altruistic mission to bring peace to the people; he has been reportedly told by God to ‘go where there is violence’. He wants to penetrate the culture and create a lasting movement that seeks to stop violence in its different forms, help communities reform after tragedy, create infrastructures that encourage rivals to start peace talks, and let those methods be passed on worldwide.

We, at least I anyway, can see past his privilege of fame and fortune (more so than some of the understandably cynical people he tries to help) and see that he genuinely wants this to become more than a fad or a hashtag. He’s willing to stay longer than the news crews and implores that he’d like to eat local rather than at the more commercial food court in the next town over. Not totally a pariah, he does connect with a few people. The mother of the high school shooter finds solace in him; at the very least he provides an ear for her, refusing to sign off her son as born a ‘wrongun’ like the rest of her community has. When she gives him her son’s watch, it starts working again, a reminder that he has magic qualities for some.

Ian Rickson has put a huge amount of trust in the play to stage it like he has. A screen at the back of the stage simply gives the location of each scene on Ultz’s sleek design, with identical wheel-on chairs. It’s not at all ‘tricksy’, with most of the actors, props and a stage management member visible ‘offstage’. Minimal props, doubling cast members and Ultz’s impressive costume and wig design do the hard work, taking us from a rocket factory to a motel room, an Amazon-esque distribution facility (the company is called Equator here), a university campus, outside a prison, a shattered family home and so on. The play has a huge ambition in way of plays from the late 80s/ early 90s by playwrights such as David Hare, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner, and more recently writers like Lucy Kirkwood and (perhaps to a lesser extent) James Graham. Plays with scenes of varying length that go from interior to exterior, from on horseback to an aeroplane, from a TV studio to Downing Street, from a sauna to a restaurant demonstrate a breadth and scope that suggests a playwright’s refusal to not allow the page to limit what makes it to the stage. This style allows Shinn to capture and explore multiple contemporary, and sadly familiar, issues: high school shootings, police brutality, campus sexual assault cases, unappreciated workers stuck in menial jobs, exploitative bosses, addiction, relationships being replaced by sex as a need for instant contact or relief.

In the interval, someone in front of us said ‘this isn’t going to end well’. She was right. In the second act, Luke’s naivety that he thought he could change the world begins to show. He starts questioning his reasons and his faults. It is rightly pointed out that ‘violence’ has infinite meaning, scope and effect: by only reporting sex workers’ stories of abuse, Luke is inadvertently enacting ‘violence’ upon all other sex workers by perpetuating the stigma that they face in society; in cancelling his tour of the equator warehouse in order to visit a conflicted drug addict, Luke neglects the Equator staff which has grave repercussions for its workers; in refusing to love until his mission has succeeded Luke causes a ‘violent’ rift between himself and his would-be-girlfriend, journalist Sheila. In a world of cause and effect where everything has its opposite, its ‘Against’, it becomes obvious that Luke is fighting a losing battle: violence begets violence, which begets love, which begets intimacy, which begets violence. And so on. And, in his unavoidable shortcomings, the people he wants to help eventually, and inevitably, become his downfall. There’s an element of hubris involved with the character, which proposes that to pin hopes of world peace on one man is merely a tragedy waiting to happen.

Ben Whishaw has been perfectly cast as Luke. He looks well-groomed, smart and healthy but not vainly so; energetic but in a focused way; enigmatic and likeable; he comfortably carries off concerned philanthropist still with a hint of California Cool. Amanda Hale is a quietly assuring presence throughout as Sheila, an earthy contact point for the people Luke meets on his odyssey. Her earthiness against his loftiness. Her frustration at Luke’s obliviousness and his occasional mis-prioritising of issues provides a subtle tension. However, the character feels a little underdeveloped, other than her feelings for Luke I’m not really sure what else motivated her.

Shinn’s play is large and sometimes too didactic and having the feel of a lecture. I don’t think I was the only audience member to have foreseen a sex joke when a voice apparently told Luke to ‘Come’. I also remain unsure as to how we were meant to feel about the end of act one: does Luke collapse from another ‘vision’ or is it simply a case of post-erection blood rush dizziness, and (more pressingly) can he tell the difference?

Alongside Luke’s journey of self-discovery, we see (at least) two really interesting subplots worthy of further development. The first is a creative writing professor who used to be a sex worker who, in trying to encourage his tutee of being more open minded about her story, tries to impose his own socio-political views on her and tries to read into her personal relationships. Another is in the Equator warehouse, a company started by one of Luke’s competitors which aims to think big, open and green. Yet, we see the impact of the regulations enforced on the ground level workers of such large organisations, where everything is banned from discussion and an impersonal atmosphere is created.

It’s not as theatrically satisfying as something like Gloria, which shares some of Against’s issues, but it asks big questions and is given the space, both aesthetically and formally, to grow. The dialogue sometimes feels a bit too right-on, as if he’s provoking reactions from the audience. However, Shinn seems to have his finger on the pulse with Against. He paints a world of fear and violence, where warehouse workers are as robotic as the real robots taking over their jobs. He portrays a culture of screens and buzz words, from ‘relational purchasing’ as an alternative to capitalism, to ‘actualising’ feelings for someone, to ‘benchmarks’ and even ‘active shooter’. But he also offers a world where, just maybe, better community cohesion could be the answer to the world’s problems.

Against runs at the Almeida Theatre until 30th September.

Ben Whishaw in Against. Photography: Johan Persson

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