Anne Washburn’s new play might be called ‘Shipwreck’ but it could just as easily labelled ‘A Study in How Civilizations Fail’. She’s aimed her analytical eye at 2017, an extraordinary year in American politics, and crafted a play that takes what is, in art terms at least, the present moment, as her subject. It’s a play about Trump, we’re told. But this is Washburn, so it was never going to be a a three-hour dramatic moan about what a twat the orange one is.
And, indeed, Shipwreck is a quietly excoriating deep-dive into how population-sating beliefs explode and implode. Trump is the symptom, not the cause, in this complex tapestry of ideas about myth-making, race and ideology and, well, everything else, too. Thankfully, this thesis wrenched from the fucked-up American psyche isn’t short of a dose of the playwright’s hugely enjoyable batshit crazy energy, too.
The mythic past looms large in Rupert Goold’s production, which visually piles on Washburn’s ideas. The characters duke it out – sometimes literally – on a circular, wooden stage that resembles a round table or ship’s wheel. A totem pole and bearskin link us to native American history, while religious iconography with faces replaced with Trump, Hilary, et al are projected on the theatre’s back wall.
If Shipwreck satirizes anyone, it’s the seven white liberal friends who meet for the weekend at one of couples’ farm in red-voting upstate New York, just after Comey called Trump a liar on TV. And by farm we mean holiday home. For while this well-educated and highly opinionated group of ‘bougie white’ friends – alarmingly capably played by the cast to a fault – are happy to appropriate the lifestyle of the rural population, they’re not interested in listening to their views, in becoming part of the community in any real way or in putting their own appropriated attachment to an idealised rural past under the microscope.
In fact, they don’t do anything much beyond analyse. While Washburn avoids subtext during the group’s long debates airing their right-on views, she also quietly shows us how this chat – like these people – is largely useless. We listen to them talk, talk, talk. But they don’t, can’t, act. They can’t feed themselves. They don’t know how to deal with the weather. They can’t even decide on the best way to eat cookies and hotdogs, let alone save a nation from stumbling into the Trump trap.
This chat replaces a plot in the traditional sense but that doesn’t mean Shipwreck is undramatic. Watching this gang pontificate themselves into paralysis is utterly compelling. Their inertia is punctuated with magnificent scenes featuring the farm house’s Trump-voting former tenants. These are the reminiscences of Mark, the son they adopted from Kenya. Fisayo Akinade plays these scenes with delicacy, intelligence and warmth, and the couple of razor-sharp monologues he’s afforded shift context and allow ideas twist and turn as he ponders he own relationship with what it means to be an American.
Big surprises comes in the form of revelations about unlikely Trump-voting characters but Washburn gives them time to chew on complex motivations, desires, dreams that they can no more grapple with the sense of than we can. There’s a crazed imagining of the Comey-Trump meal in which Big Donald asks the then head of the FBI to be his man that sees Risteárd Cooper’s majestically gold-painted Roman emperor-cum-wrestler vision of Trump manically stalk around the rabbit-in-headlights Comey (Khalid Abdalla) spouting his ridiculous half-baked ideology. It’s an inspired performance that the audience would be all too keen to believe.
As Washburn pulls the stitches of her patchwork tighter, it becomes clear Mark is at the heart of the play. It might even be his fever dream that we’re immersed in, one of a nation that could see the Trump abyss in the path ahead but closed its eyes and ambled in anyway. As perplexing, paralysing and exciting as the American Dream myth-making that gave birth to Trump, Shipwreck is a mind-boggling study in how a civilization sunk itself.
Shipwreck is on at Almeida Theatre until 30th March. More info and tickets here.