Theatre Preview: Shipwreck at The Almeida
PUBLISHED: 14:17 06 February 2019 | UPDATED: 14:30 06 February 2019
Anne Washburn's latest play stages a nightmarish dinner party with Donald Trump, his entourage, and entrances by James Comey and George Bush
Billed as a sinister and sensational take on the Trump presidency, Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck pitches audiences into a nightmarish dinner party on a snowy night in a remote upstate farmhouse.
Attended by the 45th President and his entourage - both Comey and Bush make an entrance too - the surreal scene unfolds like The Big Chill meets Kubrick according to Rupert Goold, who directs the “quirky character comedy”.
“It’s a bit like The Big Chill with a bunch of friends going away for the weekend and getting stuck in Trumpland,” says the Almeida artistic director.
“In some ways it’s in the tradition of Angels in America. Looking at a big state of our times moment through the microscope of a friendship group and their interpersonal relationships.
“It’s very funny, but I hope it makes people think more deeply about what is the apt response to a certain kind of populism, how did it find traction here and in America, and what might its roots be?”
Lest any of the real life folk feel litigious, the script has all been “legally checked” assures Goold.
“Doing it over here makes it a bit easier,” he adds.
Shipwreck includes (fictional) liberal characters who are grappling with Trump on an existential and political level.
“The play is partly about the liberals and their inability to come to terms with Trump in the usual way. They are fixated with him and can’t stop talking about him and what he means.
“Not only do we have a political leader who talks directly to voters by social media, but he has somehow changed the way we all talk. He’s made everyone more heated and extreme. The way he deliberately perpetuates outrage and shock is appalling, but we are also quite gleeful about it. The anti-Trump side in some ways has become as crude and knockabout as Trump himself with impressionists and babies in nappies. Humour is a product of him.”
Goold believes Washburn’s drama will resonate with British audiences going through their own political upheaval.
“It’s an interesting play for us because of the parallel with Brexit. Whatever side of the debate you are on, very few of us think it is going well, and you wonder how did we get here?”
The almost daily twists and turns of political change make it hard to mount a response, he says.
“How do we rehearse and make a play that can capture and examine things that are changing so rapidly? It’s impossible for us to grapple with. There’s so much political upheaval it’s hard to sequence and hold it in your memory, there was the Brexit vote last month that felt both seismic and made no difference. It’s navigating change versus a scream of panic.”
He says too he’s taking an “affectionate dig” at his own generation’s way of dealing with political adversity.
“My generation, people in their 40s, are flanked by these two radical generations; the baby boomers and the millennials. We didn’t really do politics in the way our parents and children have done. The default of Gen X is irony and jokes and that’s part of what made up our political and cultural life.
“We are amused by things or resort to irony. That gives us a gallows humour about Trump or Brexit. It’s wonderful but its also impotent.”
Starring Adam James, Raquel Cassidy and Tara Fitzgerald, Shipwreck is Washburn’s third play at the Islington venue - following Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone.
Goold says he finds the American playwright “really bright and funny in a quirky way.”
“Some of her work is more avant garde, this a more direct play but I love her dialogue. People are probably rather bored of Brexit, but watching James Graham’s Brexit drama on TV really reminded me of Shipwreck.
You think ‘Oh my God it was only a couple of years ago, I completely forgot that.”
So how can Theatre of all things help people to grapple with political change?
“Theatre is an act of coming together to talk about something going on in your society and working out whether there are anything in it.
“I hope people will think about what is just chat, political banter and what is substantial. No one wants to be preached at, you can get that on Question Time, but a theatrical or even poetic way of staging things can illuminate a political idea in a way an article in a newspaper can’t.”
Shipwreck runs at The Almeida from February 11 to March 30. For more details, click here.