Anne Washburn
Almeida Theatre

Khalid Abdalla (James Comey) and Elliot Cowan (Donald J Trump) Credit: Marc Brenner
The Cast of Shipwreck Credit: Marc Brenner
Tara Fitzgerald (Teresa) Credit: Marc Brenner

To get full value out of Shipwreck, viewers really need to have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the American political landscape today.

Indeed, for British viewers who are unlikely to be experts in the field, it may make sense to read up on the subject ahead of a visit to the theatre, depending upon political tastes perhaps trying Great Again by Donald Trump, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff and/or Fear by Bob Woodward.

It is therefore strange that Anne Washburn’s “History Play about 2017” is receiving its world première at the Almeida in London rather than an off-Broadway venue or perhaps a Washington equivalent.

The best way to give a flavour of what is on offer is to suggest that viewers bring to mind Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour epic The Inheritance and imagine that this time around the lengthy conversations between well-to-do New Yorkers centre on the political climate in the country today rather than AIDS.

Miriam Buether’s design in-the-round for director Rupert Goold literally features a circular wooden stage space with minimal props but a backdrop featuring a totem pole and bear skin on to which equally symbolic projections are occasionally superimposed.

The actual location is the newly-acquired country residence of a couple from the city, to which they invite a quartet of friends, two gay lawyers and an impoverished pairing who arrive fresh from helping a friend to deliver her baby, another symbol on a night stretching to three hours that abounds with them.

There, they discuss at inordinate length the state of the nation and the disasters that they believe President Trump is perpetrating, looking at almost every angle, although even the one person who admits to voting for him did not do so for the most obvious reasons, i.e. supporting his stated policies.

The scenes involving this group are broken up by others featuring an evangelical Christian father and his adoptive son, the latter Black or African-American (the verbal distinction is important), which we eventually discover were taking place 30 years earlier.

The loose but heavily symbolic connection between the two conversations only becomes apparent in the later stages of the evening, when we discover that they take place in the same house and its environs.

By the end, it can be difficult to work out who is taking part in who else’s dream or nightmare, some scenes making little sense, while others appear to contain elements of wish fulfilment and even dread fulfilment. The latter is particularly the case in a bizarre interlude featuring Donald Trump as perhaps an Aztec chieftain, former FBI chief James Comey as himself and the rest of the cast playing fantasy priests or possibly mythical creatures.

The cast acquit themselves capably enough in the circumstances, working well as a team and selflessly accepting that none of them will particularly catch the eye.

Shipwreck, the title of which is presumably an observation by Anne Washburn on the state of the union two years into the Trump presidency, tends to be unfocused and might well have been far stronger for losing an hour of running time. Its main strength lies in presenting the political opinions of a group of New York intellectuals as to why their country is currently battering itself against political rocks.

The real test for this play will come when it eventually moves across the Atlantic to its natural home, where the arguments are likely to be far better understood and appreciated, especially if some of the extraneous scenes are removed or remodelled.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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