Saturday 19th August, evening
Against, a new play by Christopher Shinn being given its World premier at the Almeida Theatre, poses that age-old question for playwrights: how do you write a play about a fictional engineering genius if you are not a genius. This play certainly gets 10 out of 10 for ambition all-round – firstly it is about a billionaire rocket inventor, secondly, he believes God is speaking to him, and thirdly, he is trying to change the world so radically that he hopes to change everybody from within.
If the play has a virtue, it is that there are no easy answers on offer (but then if there were, we guess Shinn would be out there spreading the word himself), and the focus is on the journey which Luke, the inventor and main protagonist, takes. He questions everything and finds plenty of questions in return, and it can feel at times as if we are being reduced to a state of ‘aporia’, the term coined by Socrates for the feeling of being at a loss, not knowing anything, and, conversely, finally being ready to learn. Luke does not have an agenda except to start a conversation which makes him vulnerable to those who shout the loudest, and there is a danger that the play loses its way along with him. In an interview about writing ‘Against’, Shinn talks about a fine balance between giving the audience too much, and allowing them to do some work. Well, he certainly can’t be accused of spoon-feeding, and quite frankly we would like a gold star for puzzling our way through the play, even if we still don’t know if we got the answers right.
There is one important advantage to starting out big, however – all the scenes, however domestic or apparently trivial, have a real edge to them, as though there is some hidden mystery. A lesser writer might have stalled, but the quality and curiosity of the writing is engaging and draws us in as we try to assemble a jigsaw that seems to have half the pieces missing. There are some brilliant scenes, such as the creative writing tutorials where we see the tutor going beyond the call of duty in trying to nurture his protegé both in her writing and her life; there is Luke’s chance meeting with a drug addict who suggests that he should get inside the rocket he has just successfully tested and start again on another planet with a hand-picked group of humans; there is the mayhem which Luke’s project causes the Sociology department of a University when he fails to project a positive enough image of sex work, and the brief moment when Luke reveals that he is secretly in love with his friend and co-worker by describing a dream about her in an interview, completely unaware that she might not appreciate the very public and apparently accidental declaration of love.
The problem is that there is no real dramatic payoff – the questions are raised, but sink back again into banality, which, although probably very truthful, is dissatisfying as a piece of theatre.
Ian Rickson, last seen by us as a Director creating an extraordinary Hamlet with Michael Sheen, does a great job of allowing the play to shine with very simple and unfussy direction. He has also gathered and inspired an excellent cast, all of whom are very engaging. Fehinti Balogun transforms himself beautifully from an elite athlete with peer group issues, to the befuddled addict struggling to find hope for the human race. Emma D’Arcy as creative writing student Anna has a lightness to her which captures the ambiguity of character who still forming, who may be a brilliant writer – or not. Kevin Harvey is a joy to watch in both of his incarnations, from the flamboyant writing tutor to the hopelessly shallow business rival of Luke, whose idea of changing the world is to get people to share shopping ideas on social media. Amanda Hale as Luke’s friend and lover manages to sustain a state of perpetual puzzlement and frustration throughout the play, with some light relief when she doubles as the frothy childhood friend who tries to bring him back to Earth.
In many ways Ben Wishaw has the least rewarding character to play. Luke remains a cipher despite efforts to bring us in to his personal life. However, he rises above the text and creates a space around it, radiating a genuine innocence combined with the understated arrogance which tends to come with any mission to ‘save’ the world.