‘I haven’t had a Trump free 24-hours for… I don’t know how long’ complains a house-guest, ushered in from the cold before a snowstorm strikes a recently purchased farmstead, where seven middle-class Democrats have made their weekend retreat.
A touching and blistering performance from Fisaya Akinade.
They have no food – all assuming the others would bring plenty.
They have no coffee – all of them assuming that the hosts would provide the basics.
And they have nothing to talk about – their inner monologues unable to compete with a cacophonous narrative coordinated from the Oval Office.
Shipwreck is written by Anne Washburn and directed by the Almeida’s own Rupert Goold. It is a dual narrative. The first strand follows the story of seven self-assured liberals, caught in twisting circles of reflexive panic as they question their own truths – think of it as an existential (and just as long) prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
The second strand of the narrative follows a young African man (a touching and blistering performance from Fisaya Akinade) as he grows up from a boy to a man. This unnamed character is adopted by two white farmers who ‘cannot afford to adopt a white baby’, and who, essentially for reasons of institutionalised racism, feel more comfortable adopting an African baby and Americanising him, rather than adopt an African-American baby. The implication – never entirely articulated, but referenced throughout – is that adopting an African baby rather than an African-American baby is less troubling to the farmers’ family. There is a cheap currency exchange in the framing of this story around racism among liberal thinkers and humour, and I’ll expand on that shortly.
Visually, Shipwreck is a convincing panopticon – an invisible but ever-present (Trump) tower within a circle, within a circle, within a circle. Shipwreck explodes itself several times – leaping from the naturalism of the farmhouse into huge, over-accentuated caricatures. Trump fights George Bush. Trump torments Comey. Trump’s face is imposed upon figures at a Vatican mass, and finally, Trump appears sprayed in gold and decorated in a headdress and cape like an all-American Montezuma.
To some extent, these explosions of space are effective. Shipwreck is a self-aware battle over the truth, where political and moral authenticity are framed as being equivalent. In Washburn’s universe, everyone is half-cartoon. Yet these scenes quickly become pantomimes of themselves, exchanging on-the-pulse and cutthroat satire for ‘he’s behind you’ pantomime. And although there is an argument to be made that American conservatism and American liberalism have been reduced to pantomime structures, Washburn is at her best when she is wielding knives instead of candy floss.
In investigating the racism amongst ‘well-informed’ liberal enclaves, Washburn reveals some unsettling structural issues in her own play. Akinade’s character arc feels completely relegated and sidelined. Akinade’s character provides the information required for a spatial twist at the end, and his acting provides the sensitive motivation which gives a soul to the entire play. But the arc feels like a ribbon intended to wrap the show up, rather than a genuine narrative investment. Akinade does not get to share the stage with the other actors until the end of the play, yet his monologues, which chapterise Shipwreck, are exemplary. It is his show, yet he is peripheral. If this is a dramatic decision designed to illustrate the effects of systemic racism, it is a jaundiced methodology.
There is one really uncomfortable transition in particular, where one of the ensemble calls ‘AND NOW, FOR SOME BLACK MAGIC’. They look directly at Akinade, who takes the stage and once again delivers a monologue in a universe of his own.
Lines like this are unnecessary. If Washburn’s script was more accommodating of its own touching heart (Akinade), the story would feel more like a thorough and unflinching challenge against structural racism, and against the cabal of Trump, rather than a formal and dedicated transcription of it.
In this swansong to the modern American liberal, Washburn and Goold make it clear that liberalism has lost the battle to convince – a problem at the heart of the script. In an early conversation about the timelessness of theatre, characters wrestle over Shakespeare’s intentions when he wrote Julius Caesar. It all feels painfully self-referential when they discuss if there is a responsibility to capture Trump in literature. And in trying to aggressively categorise the Trump psyche, Washburn’s script immediately suffers a counter-invasion from the very post-truth universe it seeks to contain – an insurgency from which it never fully recovers.