If only one thing can be said for the Almeida’s production of Shipwreck, is that it is incredibly pertinent. The play follows a group of white liberals, friends, who have gathered in a farmhouse for a weekend away in upstate New York and having been caught in a snowstorm. The friends then end up in meandering conversations about America’s current political climate and most specifically of all: Trump. Set in June 2017, just after the firing of James Comey, the point of this production is easily extrapolated to a present-day America which is still facing ludicrous consequences at the hand of its 45th President.
The play itself is set mainly around a table with twenty-six seats – seven of which seat the cast, and the other nineteen, seat lucky members of the audience. Throughout one scene, these members even make a slight contribution to the production; this, coupled with the consistent direct addressing of the audience, seeks to remind us that we are very much an audience – clearly a comment on our own complicity as citizens. Rupert Goold’s direction is thoughtful as we see the characters inhabiting the space with both warmth and necessary ominousness.
The play is by no means perfect, and some of the main faults must be ascribed to Anne Washburn’s script. The American playwright has written something, I can only describe as, incredibly mixed. The main body of the text is a debate between these friends; the script is conversational and is hardly plot driven at all. Moreover, what narrative there actually is becomes messy. Previously mentioned moments in Trump’s career are depicted later with absurdity. Washburn's script-writing can be simultaneously washy and unquestionably witty; she makes points that are sharp and important and her writing is self-aware, making direct commentary on political theatre. Apparently, however, it is not self-aware enough to cut out portions of text that are completely redundant. Vast sections teem irritating in their redundancy. Washburn's writing in Shipwreck is indulgent to say the least.
The true heart of this play, in my opinion, was not the narrative of this group of friends in a country house, but the parallel narrative of a white couple’s adoption of a Kenyan boy and the currents their relationship rides as he is raised in a white community. It is engaging and tender, but also is much more lucid and expressive in its simplicity.
Performance wise, the unquestionable highlight is Fisayo Akinade who plays Mark, the young Kenyan. On several occasions, Akinade comes to the stage with monologues that are completely captivating, navigating the pain of slavery for a modern black American, approaching it as separate from your own direct heritage and what it means to then have a child born into this country’s heritage. His sincerity and precision made the audience’s attention almost tangible. Other noteworthy performances include Risteárd Cooper, who shines in his delicate and believable performance of Lawrence (Mark’s white, Christian father), Elliot Cowan, who gives a particularly ominous portrayal of Trump, and Khalid Abdalla, who plays Yusuf, a sharp lawyer who confesses his own republican vote.
Not only is Shipwreck an insight into the contemporary American psyche, it is also immensely thought provoking, seeking to express the normalisation of what ought to be the completely absurd. These individuals’ preoccupation and difficulty coming to terms with American politics, the entity of Trump and what he has come to represent, calls into question our individual and wider social beliefs. Although not flawed, this production is so relevant it should not be missed.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor
At The Almeida Theatre until the 30th March
Almeida St, London, N1 1TA