“The problem with political theatre is that it’s too direct” is a bold and contrarian statement to make in the centre of the Almeida – in a play about Donald Trump’s presidency. And Anne Washburn’s new play Shipwreck is definitely about Trump – the audience are never in doubt about that. From the very first scene – whether it is literal, contemporaneous references to his television appearances, or sideways, half-metaphors about a house’s terrible foundations – the whole piece bends obsequiously to this cause. We open with a group of liberal, Democrat-voting, trump-mortified friends spending the weekend together, lamenting populism. And if all this seems a little on-the-nose; if it appears to be another pastiche attempt to draw meaning from the rise of the far right; if you settle into the idea that this is yet another liberal-left play, in a liberal-left theatre space, played to a middle-class bunch of liberal-lefties – then you’re in for a surprisingly challenging night of theatre.
Nowhere is the sledgehammer subtlety of writer talking to audience more obvious than when the group of friends discuss the power of theatre to affect politics. Drawing on Euripides’ plays performed in protest to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, one voice argues these demonstrate the futility of art to influence human behaviour – Athens ignored his warning and was subsequently defeated. Another argues that the lack of influence was due to the censorship of the piece, and that if it had been allowed to speak freely it would have been more impactful. Eventually we conclude, somehow, that “censorship is crucial for art”. Honestly, at this point I am drawing comparisons between Shipwreck and the painfully partisan Brexit play People Like Us earlier this year.
But then a new narrative sphere is introduced. Picking up on an earlier discussion of an outrageous but soon-forgotten lie told by Trump during the Republican primaries we are transported to an almost farcical world taken straight from the delusional mind of the Don himself. The tone swings wildly and George W. Bush, replete with one-liners like “I’m not going to beat around the Bush”, tries to placate a caricature Trump. The first half finishes in a boxing match between the pair, set to decide the fate of the country – it is wonderfully bizarre. And I begin to see the point Washburn has made: this is the kind of theatre we get to watch if we don’t take notice now; the kind of art bred from censorship, from ‘post-truth’.
Interspersed between these two worlds is a third story, that of a rural American family adopting a black child a generation before the Trump election. This is the most interesting element of Shipwreck, and not only because, unlike the other spheres, it has a narrative arc we can cling on to. It is told through the eyes of this young child, who notably speaks last – his voice at the margin of the white opinions on race in the room. We watch him grow up, we laugh at his fight to be allowed MTV, we are uncomfortable as he comes to term with what it means to be black in America, we cry with him as he remembers the history of a people who have come before him. This is where the play’s most emotional moments are drawn from, the ones which bring home the importance of fighting a revisionist history.
Eventually, after our Democrat group of friends have debated themselves in circles trying to “unpack” their “problematic” phrases and talked themselves into a silly oblivion of noise notably devoid of action and meaning we are shown a Trump voter. He tells us of reasonable, rational fears and how city-folk’s eyes glaze over when he tries to talk to them. He says he wouldn’t mind an unorthodox, lying, antichrist of a president if he made people’s lives better. We can empathise. Shipwreck does a brilliant job of showing us that we are more at home sometimes in the demonisation of different thought, in acrid identity politics and certainly in a cartoonish mockery of a political leader – than we are with the real human drivers for wanting something different.
Washburn’s new play is more of an essay for stage, which makes full use of its wide-ranging form to properly challenge its audience in a time of echo-chambers. She shows us the fragile, temporary nature of the world we live in and challenges us to reflect on our part in it.
Image: Marc Brenner
Shipwreck runs at the Almeida Theatre until 30th March