Building the Wall

Robert Schenkkan
Park Theatre 200

Trevor White and Angela Griffin Credit: Mark Douet
Trevor White Credit: Mark Douet
Trevor White and Angela Griffin Credit: Mark Douet

Building the Wall fits into a sub-genre of the performing arts that features writers and the like visiting prisoners (usually murderers) and teasing out their stories. This two-hander is also one of those plays that requires a significant suspension of disbelief in return for which audience members are rewarded with some radical thinking about contemporary issues.

In this case, the events take place, under the direction of the Park’s artistic director Jez Bond, in a dystopian near-future at a correctional facility in El Paso, Texas.

In an enclosed glass box that resembles a squash court, Trevor White’s Rick prowls around in orange overalls like some growling, caged animal, initially scaring his do-gooding visitor to the point where a premature ending to the entertainment seems a distinct possibility. However, college Professor, Gloria played by Angela Griffin is made of sterner stuff, somewhat nervously able to exchange witticisms and empathise with her new friend.

Robert Schenkkan, who is probably best known in this country as the scriptwriter for Hacksaw Ridge, takes time to allow the reason for Rick’s incarceration to emerge following some unlikely early skirmishes during which we learn more about the interrogator than her subject. Conveniently, Gloria is black, allowing the conversation to drift into a debate about potential prejudice embedded in the prisoner's heart and mind, which he denies in the trite fashion favoured by the "some of my best friends are..." school of racism.

By this stage, the embittered middle-aged man, who was unloved as a child and eventually wound up in the army, strikes viewers as a dangerous psychopath. However, the second half of a taut, 80-minute drama reveals a long series of unexpected turns. After serving his country, Rick moved into the security business, eventually progressing to prison warden and then climbing the career ladder to dizzying heights.

Without wishing to give away too much, Rick’s crime fully deserves the death sentence that has been delivered. This means that much of the evening is devoted to trying to understanding his motives and apportioning blame, which at times widens out by the minute.

Building the Wall also attempts to indict poor, benighted President Trump, since in the very near future, if Mr Schenkkan is right, he will outlaw aliens, declare martial law and set in train a series of connected consequences that can only be compared to the actions of Hitler, Stalin and a long line of tinpot dictators whose need for power overcame any minor affection for humanity or the pursuit of a moral line of thought and action.

It has to be said that far too much of the dramaturgy is built on coincidence and convenience, giving the impression of an undemanding prime-time TV drama rather than a well-constructed and intellectually rigorous stage presentation. Even so, the chances are that anybody who fears for the future of the United States under its current administration will feel that many of the points made by both prisoner and Professor are valid.

Indeed, they may even fear that some of the more terrifying predictions in this piece could just come to pass before the next opportunity for the American electorate to re-elect or rebel against their leader.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher