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Against review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘Ben Whishaw is near perfect’

Ben Whishaw in Against at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Ben Whishaw in Against at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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Violence, at the beginning of American writer Christopher Shinn’s play, is implicit. A police tent covers a body, the vestige of some violent act. But, as this puzzling, frustrating epic progresses, that theme of violence and its manifestations shift and change until, by the dramatic climax, it has become physical.

The play follows Silicon Valley tech billionaire Luke, played, as usual, with near-perfection by Ben Whishaw. After a message from god, Luke sets out on a mission to go where there is violence – to talk about and maybe even eradicate it. But, as Whishaw’s well-intentioned Luke gets further along his journey, he realises how complicated the world is.

As his 2015 Donmar play Teddy Ferrara showed, Shinn is great at shuffling different forms of liberalism so fast that they become a confused blur, pointing out the hypocrisies, the impossibilities, the intolerances – and the optimism – of the many shades of left. There are few writers who can capture so expertly a contemporary American vernacular.

This play takes those themes further. All of America’s 21st century conflicts come in one great wave: school shooters, rape, labour conditions, weapons sales, factory farming, child abuse – and more besides. It kicks up so much dust, but none of it really settles. There’s no message here, just questions. It’s a strange, slippery piece of writing about our world, which also creates its own strange world on stage.

 

The ultra-sleek design by Ultz – just a wooden stage and a few chairs – and the static direction from Jerusalem director Ian Rickson – let Shinn’s script do the talking. Most scenes consist of two characters conversing and barely moving, but the text isn’t always strong enough to sustain the otherwise bald production.

A fantastic and fascinating ensemble elevates the script: Whishaw combines quick feline movements with long periods of stillness, both rooted in precision, giving the impression of a young businessman completely assured of his own worth and potential. There’s confidence in everything he does, but it never quite turns into arrogance. He makes a strong case for the idea that 21st century prophets are the Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs, who seem everyday to come up with ideas to save the world.

There’s excellent work, too, from Kevin Harvey and Emma D’Arcy. D’Arcy plays a student in a polyamorous relationship, which provokes a few scoffs from the audience. But it’s unclear whether Shinn wants us to mock or not. Much of the play could be satire, if it didn’t ask us to take it so seriously.

Ultimately, maybe, this hand-wring of a play, looking at violence in many forms, seems to resign itself to a sad conclusion: that there are people trying to do good and not noticing the damage they leave as they do it. That’s about all that gets resolved. What else does the play have to say? The world is screwed, majorly. And there are no answers. And the rest is violence.

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Verdict
Puzzling and frustrating play about violence, elevated by a near-perfect performance from Ben Whishaw
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