Shipwreck by Anne Washburn
Almeida Theatre / directed by Rupert Goold
Seen on February 16, 2019
Score: 3 / 5
It might not be best critical practice to think about a new play and its first production in different terms and as separate entities, as though one had only a passing bearing on the other. There are times, however, when the quality differential between the two is so stark that the distinction has to be made. Probably the more common vice is to subject great plays to disappointing renderings, but the reverse is also possible, with a disappointing play receiving a laudable production. Shipwreck at the Almeida is a case in point, as Rupert Goold’s fantastic cast and notable staging are wasted on Anne Washburn’s dramatically inert, shockingly dull play.
Let’s begin with the play. Shipwreck alternates between two narrative strands that purport to intersect at the very end: One depicts a group of predominantly white, upper-class friends who come together for a weekend retreat at a country house and get lost in an endless, meandering discussion on Trump’s presidency. The other is primarily a series of introspective and inquisitive monologues centred on the coming-of-age story of Mark (played with great finesse by Fisayo Akinade), a Black man who has been adopted and raised by a white couple. Further intercutting these is a diptych of satirical scenes that imagine Trump in highly caricatured episodes of political scheming: in the first one, presumably taking place in the early 2000’s, he is visited by George W. Bush, whom he ends up combating for the presidency, and in the second, much closer to our time, he demands loyalty from James Comey in a now-infamous dinner.
If all this sounds like a jumble of ill-fitting pieces, then it’s because Washburn’s play is exactly that. It is a baggy hodgepodge of random scenes of political commentary—a dramaturgical mess that doesn’t even make an effort to pull itself together. It looks more like a rough draft, which is potentially pregnant with multiple plays, than the latest work of a dramatist who is one of the most inventive of her generation (and whose Mr. Burns, in my opinion, is one of the greatest American plays of this decade). In Shipwreck, Washburn’s loosely constellated scenes either drag on forever or come to an abrupt halt before they even start rolling; most of her characters are mind-bogglingly flat and serve merely as argumentative mouthpieces; and her attempts to infuse the quotidian with the mythical—which was the superb achievement of Mr. Burns—keep falling flat. Overarching and aggravating these weaknesses is the glaring problem of structure, as the play’s many discrete components refuse to fit together in any exciting or meaningful way. With thoughtful characterisation and plotting thus discarded, there’s virtually nothing that propels the play forward. And in a production that runs for 3 hours and 30 minutes, this is problematic at best.
The play’s political discourse is blindingly explicit, so much so that one of the scenes is self-reflexively—and gratuitously—devoted to a discussion of what it means to write a political play today, with the characters spouting examples from Shakespeare and Euripides, and one of them concluding that our immature penchant for “mystery” is what has created these “eternal” plays with no political specificity. Taking this as its own maxim, Washburn’s play desperately wants to make specific and provocative points about the manifold absurdities and woes of contemporary American politics. Names of political figures keep buzzing in the air; references to specific events of the last few years abound in every scene; and many of the political questions asked by the characters end up getting directed at the audience itself. All this, of course, within a seemingly diverse group: the country-house crew includes liberals, conservatives, and at least one self-designated radical; also thrown into the mix is a person of colour, who happens to be one of the two gay men. We learn at some point, in passing, that one of the couples is “1% rich,” whereas another one is going through a rough patch financially. (That covers economic diversity, right?) It’s hardly a surprise that issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender are virtually absent from any of the diatribes voiced by the characters: they can get quite myopic when it comes to matters of identity.
Not that a play about Trump, or any political play, ought to deal with any or all of these categories of experience, but one can’t help but wonder why Washburn keeps eliding such concerns, not even gesturing towards them. Is it because this particular group of characters is in no position to relate to and comment on the plight of the precarious under Trump’s government? Perhaps. Is this why we have Mark in this play? Yes, I suspect, even though his story has very little to do with Trump.
Besides its farcical tokenism, the ways in which the play engages with political realities and questions are consistently trite. Only a handful of the views articulated by the characters are actually worth pondering and pursuing in detail; the rest are clichés by now. It is telling that Washburn doesn’t actually do anything with these positions; there’s no intellectual or dramatic arc drawn with—or through—any of them. There is not even an intriguing debate of opposites, of the sort that one would rightly expect to witness in a play so insistently political. What happens is that ideas come and go, pseudo-debates rise and fall. And they fall not with a bang but with a whimper. Whenever this prolonged chitchat loses steam, characters resort to spiritual or mythical meditations that always find their way back to Trump. In one of these, Trump is the Antichrist, whom Pope Francis may or may not have recognised in their meeting; in another, Trump is actually an angel, and it is we who are demons, thinking poorly of him.
Amidst such cringe-inducing speculations, the closest Washburn comes to gripping our attention sustainedly and meaningfully is when one of her characters, who is clearly anti-Trump, admits to having voted for him in a purple state—a fact he has hidden even from his husband. His protracted, but intermittently unfolding, account of this perplexing act constitutes one of the few episodes in Shipwreck where we feel we are in the presence of a dramatic character whose politics and psychology are somehow connected.
To give credit where credit is due: There are moments when Washburn’s language soars to affecting heights of lyrical power, when a throwaway remark gets imbued with an otherworldly halo or a brief scene of intellectual back-and-forth glows with life, even if fleetingly. This is often the case in Mark’s monologues, in which he reflects on his upbringing in a white community and ponders, with impressive imagination and eloquence, how the history of race and racism in America has long haunted him. These are dramatically vibrant instances, but they are a minority in this sprawling work and fail to develop into resonant through-lines. If anything, they should encourage the audience to wonder how things might have turned out if Washburn had just picked one central idea for this play and nurtured it with care.
It is, then, not the play itself but pretty much everything else that makes this production not merely endurable, but oddly watchable. It is an absolute pity that such an overwhelmingly strong cast has to make do with this imperfect script. Rupert Goold has assembled a formidable group of actors without even a slightly weak link. All of them do their best to stretch these quasi-characters beyond their narrow limits, not allowing them to slide into cartoon, while doing full justice to their peculiar Americanisms. Goold’s direction, too, deserves praise, as the cast handle the play’s many clunky transitions with minimal awkwardness and animate even the most stagnant moments with sleek blocking and sharp delivery.
Goold stages the play primarily on a round wooden platform, which also doubles as a giant ceremonial table, around which sit not only the actors, but also a dozen audience members. The onstage audience acts, at least in theory, as civic voyeurs or silent participants of what passes as political debate (and, later, ritual) in this work. This configuration of the space, designed by Miriam Buether, is an ideal choice to represent the play’s (aspiring) straddle between the epic and the intimate: actors alternate between occupying the far edge of the platform (thus leaving the whole thing empty) and dispersing all over its surface, at times coming almost face-to-face with the spectators. Indeed, from candlelit intimacy to phantasmagorical spectacle, the range of moods that materialize upon this platform is refreshingly expansive. Apropos of this, there’s a sense in which the play keeps citing, whether intentionally or not, the first and final acts of Mr. Burns, where the characters chat around a campfire and perform an elaborate musical pageant, respectively. Shipwreck overindulges in the former mode, which is why, I think, the free-floating bits of overstated parody have been added to the play ex post facto—as a sort of dramaturgical compensation, a would-be reward for our patience.
In most of the transitions, Luke Halls’ videos are projected on the Almeida’s brick wall in flashes of energising grandeur. Though it is often unclear what these satirical visuals of fictive Trump iconography have to do with any of the stage action, they are nonetheless invigorating. Deftly atmospheric, Jack Knowles’ lighting conveys the play’s near-manic mood swings with much refinement. Visually speaking, then, there’s a lot that keeps one engaged, and it is partly thanks to these elements that the runtime of the production does not become a recipe for boredom.
Ultimately, it would not be an exaggeration to conclude that the real shipwreck here is no other than Washburn’s play. But the same cannot and should not be said of the production as a whole, as much as it can be extricated from the text it embodies (though there is obviously a limit to such conceptual division). With its nuanced performances, imaginative staging, and arresting tableaus, this is commendable work. There is surely a good play to be written about the whole Trump hellscape, and this cast and this creative team might be what that play deserves, but Shipwreck is far from rising to that challenge.