With a stellar cast and a who’s who in US politics, Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck is the perfect play to explore Trump’s presidency in the era of entertainment by news.
The media is designed to entertain: that is, to numb, depress and distract. This is my central tenet on all things newsworthy. So a play about Trump’s presidency was a fitting mode to explore this (not so) new era of entertainment by way of news. The spectacle that was the election of Trump to the most powerful office in the world created a barrage of continuous global outrage. Trump memes and his outlandish tweets were (and still are) shared throughout the internet at a staggering rate. On twitter feeds everywhere, we all smugly congratulate ourselves for being able to see through his false claims. Trump, as an entity, has become an entry point in which many begin to access their political stance and outrage. Whatever secret problematic views you have, people of all genders, races and creeds mutually agree that Trump is probably very terrible. Shipwreck asks us to consider the deception of the present. How simplistically can we accept the Trump or any overly publicised political narrative that is being presented to us?
This is the very current context in which you come to watch Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, ‘A History Play about 2017’. It’s not a very surprising concept when you consider that this same playwright wrote an adaptation of The Twilight Zone and a futuristic post-apocalyptic play about The Simpsons called Mr Burns. Washburn states that she wanted to explore how possible it was to set a history play in the present. The three-hour experiment that ensues is a highly confusing, intensely entertaining experience, one which asks questions it refuses to answer. But how can we expect any with the temporal constraints of no hindsight?
Before the show begins, the audience gleefully awaits a damning meditation on Trump and a sense of comradery ripples quietly through the auditorium. The atmosphere is excitable: ‘we’re just so darn liberal’. You can almost make out such self-congratulatory comments in the collective murmurs of yet another vastly homogenous (white, liberal, middle class and older) audience at the theatre. While people find their seats, you notice the actors sitting around the stark, wooden circular stage watching their audience quietly. Then the first character jumps onto the stage and American versions of the audience enter the scene. As if looking into a transatlantic mirror, we see a middle class, mature group of non-descript, white liberal friends, all of whom have just started their weekend away at an old farmhouse out in the wilderness. They appreciate the novelty of it all before engaging in a very pertinent discussion about Ivanka Trump.
This cleverly devised play about a historical moment that has not yet ended, encapsulates themes of time and memory through the lens of modern global politics rather than the Trump administration itself. Through Shipwreck’s non-linear structure, Washburn leads us to wonder what the temporal parameters of a political moment are; that is, if any political moment can be looked at as just a moment. How reliable are collective mainstream, media curated memories? And is it therefore possible to find the truth within a bombardment of online social commentary. These questions are asked by the characters throughout, as their relationships and beliefs start to unravel into a strange messy array of several ritualistic scenes of candlelight, random sporadic monologues and philosophical debates hearkening back to the ancients. Trump (played by a metallic gold, body paint-laden Elliot Cowan) becomes a cross between a lecherous version of the ‘Antichrist’ and a satanic cult leader. This absurd but brilliantly played conclusion is foreshadowed throughout the duration of the play and is further cemented in the darker second half. When playing his liberal character, Cowan gives a long, detailed reference to the life and times of Jim Jones. This serves to hammer the nightmarish presidency point a little deeper. The extremity of this image conveys and highlights the exaggerated and frankly unrealistic expectations placed on the former reality TV star. Are the privileged liberals actually the ones who are gulping down the kool aid, you wonder? Washburn takes no prisoners in what seems to be an attack on complacent keyboard-warrior liberalism.
The dizzying, dynamic perspectives provided by the exceptionally talented ensemble offer a multi-dimensional view of the current political climate. Throughout, the play jumps from the group of friends in 2017 to the old inhabitants of the house in the 1970s. The lone black character (played by the unforgettably talented Fisayo Akinade), who frames and reframes the direction of the play throughout, lives with a white Christian couple in the 70s. A preachy Christian couple who have adopted a black child much like the aforementioned Jim Jones. The historical ghosts that share the stage, sometimes simultaneously with the contemporary liberals, convey that at the core the issue of America and its politics revolve around the situation of the African Americans. Our character suddenly becomes a mystical oracle of history through his repeated generational trauma, instead of another voice for playful political discourse. For the privileged few, global repercussions are viewed and debated from a safe distance. That is specifically when the intersections of lower socioeconomic class, gender and a darker skin tone do not tinge every political perspective you have with a dash of identity politics. However, Washburn cleverly toys with this idea by making the lone black and brown faces cast a mouthpiece for the more comical re-imaginings in the play of other members of the politically powerful elite (as their secondary characters). They play a black Bush and a brown head of the FBI. This choice makes their identity and the consequences of being othered throughout history to the present all the more stark. Peppered with the measured monologues on race in America and Yusuf’s (played by Khalid Abdalla from The Kite Runner) confession of voting for Trump, race is an issue that Washburn wants to keep at the forefront of an otherwise very white liberal set up.
Ironically, perhaps deliberately, the pared down, bare Farmhouse set serves as the perfect canvas to expose each of the ‘benevolently’ intentioned group of liberals. We watch them on their journey of momentarily plugging out of the internet and engaging in each other’s (and their own) actual problematic raw thoughts. Think debates such as ‘am I a racist or a realist?’ – the title I gave to the uncomfortable downward spiral conveyed by Justine Mitchell in a scene of tragicomic ruthlessness. In direct opposition, the black teenager at the centre just wants to be washed over with streams of entertainment provided by MTV; he wants to be distracted from the confusion. What numbing subliminal messaging does the likes of social media and MTV provide? His white father, played by Risteárd Cooper, gives him the usual yet apt spiel about how chasing the unattainable lifestyle presented in media distracts you from the very tangible real world. With moments of clarity amidst the visual and structural chaos that is Shipwreck, I started to consider the fact that much like freedom, truth is also often found with the oppressed. Perhaps the truth is not in anti-Trump tweets; perhaps the truth is in the timeless, generational trauma that forms the foundation of many of the grand political narratives we discuss on a daily basis.
Shipwreck is on at the Almeida Theatre until the 30th March 2019. For more information and to book tickets, click here.