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Shipwreck review at Almeida Theatre, London – ‘messy, unfathomable but often enthralling’

The cast of Shipwreck at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Very few playwrights could pitch a play with the strapline “You are formally invited to dinner with the 45th president of the United States” and not make your heart sink.

Anne Washburn is one of the select few. Her imagination works like no other writer, whether she’s adapting The Twilight Zone into suggestion and abstraction or, as in her unsurpassable 2014 play Mr Burns, turning The Simpsons into religion.

Here, at great length and to almost unfathomable depths, Washburn has a go at Trump. It’s a play that wrings its hands about the play that it is. A play with an existential crisis.

The set-up – though structural rug-pulls mean we can’t be certain – is that a group of white liberals get together in a country house for a reunion, and a blizzard snows them in. Meanwhile, an African-American man who was adopted by white farmers puzzles out his relationship to race, liberalism and the great man himself. Meanwhile there’s Trump, but not as we know him.

A lot of talking goes on for a very long time: beautifully wrought speeches with repetition in all the right places, tail-ends that turn into poetry and cadences that sing. Sometimes this talking is really fun and clever, about whether political plays can actually be about now; about Shakespeare in the Park, Euripides in Athens, Trump in a White House back office demanding personal fealty from the director of the FBI. Sometimes it’s just boring.

Luckily, an excellent cast has been assembled to deliver these hand-wringing speeches. Tara Fitzgerald, Risteárd Cooper, Raquel Cassidy – all fantastic. But the show goes to Khalid Abdalla, whose slow and purposeful delivery makes his every word drip with intrigue, and also to Fisayo Akinade, who manages to be diffident and almost childlike at the same time as hinting at vast reserves of wisdom. He is completely enthralling.

There’s talk about Trump, and talk about opinions about Trump, and talk about analysing those opinions about Trump, all delivered in a wonderful Washburn brand of stylised naturalism.

Washburn is also incredibly adept at capturing ‘trashy’ genres, and slamming (so-called) high and low cultures into each other. Take Trump as the principled, charming, capable and chiselled hero of an action movie. Or as a Mephistophelian manipulator in red-and-gold cape and pants, like some high-camp space opera. We get all that and more via unfathomable, wonderful gear changes. To be honest, it would have been nice to have more of the batshit weirdness.

Rupert Goold’s direction deals similarly in these twin modes of naturalism and ultra-stylisation, with the actors drifting around a circle of wooden planks capped by a halo of light. Projections of Trump and Clinton mashed up with religious iconography plaster the back wall, too, but they’re too dim to see properly.

As in Mr Burns, we are presented with the apotheosis of characters (in this case, Trump) to the status of archetype, cult figure or religious symbol. But where that play was pure perfection, this falls short.

It’s messy and anxiety-inducing, and you can’t believe it’s been going on for so long. It’s the essence of the Trump presidency on stage.

Playwright Anne Washburn: ‘I pray God my Trump play won’t be relevant in three years’

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Anne Washburn's take on the Trump presidency is messy, unfathomable but often enthralling