Telling stories around a fire is probably the oldest form of theatremaking. It’s no accident that American playwright Anne Washburn has set long stretches of two of her plays, Mr Burns and Shipwreck, around firesides. Both are representative of theatre at the beginning of times. Washburn also uses fireside settings to tell stories set at the end of times; both plays are decidedly apocalyptic tales.
For Shipwreck, which opened at London’s Almeida last week, the looming spectre at the feast – literally so, in the muscled, gold-painted, bare body of actor Elliot Cowan – is Donald Trump. So yes, it’s a fiction – the US president clearly doesn’t have a body anything like that – but as we revisit what may have happened in Trump’s private dinner confrontation with his then-FBI director James Comey, we are witness to what only writers of fiction can do: peer behind the curtains of recent history and imagine what took place.
The play had a decidedly mixed reception from British critics, but Ben Brantley, reviewing for the New York Times, dubbed it “a truly thrilling, truly original fantasia of a drama”, and pondered aloud: “Why does this New Yorker have to cross an ocean to see what promises to be this season’s most exciting American play?”
He might have asked the same question last year, when Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance premiered at the Young Vic. It’s no coincidence that the leading characters of that play are also baffled and unnerved by the victory of Trump. Yet in both shows, one of their number – in each case, the wealthiest person on stage – reveals themselves to have voted for him.
Time was I would rush to the reviews and arts pages before I turned to the news, but the churn of Trump-fuelled headlines provides me with more daily drama than any play could, and I find myself checking the New York Times website for updates several times a day. So, I’m probably the target audience for plays like Shipwreck. However, I went with some trepidation: I’d absolutely loathed Washburn’s Mr Burns, also premiered here by the Almeida.
But, as Lyn Gardner wrote here last week, all theatre has a context in which critics need to review work. It is precisely because I so hated Mr Burns that I now had a context for seeing Shipwreck. But I also had a keen awareness of the stories it was retelling, unlike Mr Burns (which was based on TV’s The Simpsons, of which I only had a passing acquaintance).
The Almeida, whose production of another Washburn play, The Twilight Zone, is about to transfer to the West End, has taken its audience on a journey with her work; much as the National, for instance, has done with the plays of David Hare, Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppard. An artistic director like Rupert Goold can build a relationship with a writer over time that also benefits the theatre’s audience.
It’s early days for Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure at the Young Vic, but already we can sense a growing context for the type of work we might find there, drawn from a more racially diverse template of plays and/or casting, which are being opened up to more women directors.
Kwei-Armah kicked off with his own community-led musical rewrite of Twelfth Night, which he co-directed; but four of the five next main-house shows are all being directed by women. Ola Ince’s production of Danai Gurira’s The Convert was followed last week by the opening of Kate Hewitt’s thrilling revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ prison drama Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train; next is Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production of Death of a Salesman, cast with black actors, then Kwei-Armah directing Tree, which he’s co-created with Idris Elba, Yael Farber directing Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Nadia Latif directing Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview.
Theatre is not just about stories, but who gets to tell them. That now has a new context and focus at the Young Vic. By contrast, we may stumble upon themes or provocations from time to time in the commercial sector, but it is usually not curated, unless a theatre owner and/or producer specifically engineers it.
That’s what Jamie Lloyd has triumphantly achieved with his stunning Pinter at the Pinter season at the Ambassador Theatre Group-owned Pinter Theatre, or Nica Burns did with director Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring company when she handed him the Vaudeville for an Oscar Wilde season. The next residency there will be for Mischief Theatre, which will add to its West End roster of the long-running The Play Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery with three new productions, starting with Groan Ups in October.
That’s a leap of faith, but the company’s past track record might also suggest a safe bet. Once again, though, audiences – and critics – will have a context for knowing something of what to expect. But wouldn’t it be marvellous if they gave us something unexpected, too?
Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton