A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.
The Silicon Valley set rarely come off well in popular culture with a combination of technological innovation and immense wealth that seems to separate these CEOs and entrepreneurs from the world they’re intent on changing. From Christopher Walken’s deliciously evil Bond villain planning to drown his competitors to ensure his microchips became invaluable in A View to a Kill to the determined protagonist in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs who rode roughshod over the feelings and loyalties of his colleagues, the tech billionaire is usually presented as someone who wants change at any price.
In reality though, there is another side to these businesses and to the people who run them that can be equally controversial. The charities, foundations and outreach programmes set-up by big multinationals or well-known entrepreneurs can often generate as much negative publicity as helpful support for local communities. And society takes quite a contradictory view on attempts to patronise the arts, fund school buildings or establish charitably foundations – on the one hand, we expect organisations with vast wealth to share it, while condemning donations from unethical sources. In the world of the tech billionaire, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Christopher Shinn’s new play Against explores these issues using one technology entrepreneur who leaves his multiple businesses to begin a nationwide campaign to highlight the different kinds of violence in everyday America. But, rather than pressure from society or the media to share his fortune, Luke’s motivation is more internal, believing he has received a direct order from God to go out into the world and help people. The messianic qualities of the mission become muddied by the mixed reaction he receives and how his logical mind responds to the ever-widening definition of violence he encounters.
It’s clear that Luke (Ben Whishaw) is someone who hops from project to project, although why is never really explored – is it the way his mind works, boredom or a form of short-term thinking that allows him to flutter between activities but never really settle on one thing. We discover early on that he made his money from designing rockets, and has several companies, but his rise to the top of his profession, what he actually does and the effects of this on his decision to transform himself into a social campaigner are not part of this story. Instead, we’re initially asked to take Luke as we find him, although later Shinn tries half-heartedly to give him some unrelated backstory.
The first half focuses on his tour of America, and we see him bounce from issue to issue, and while promising never to leave, soon moving on to the next opportunity. He starts with the recent aftermath of a high school shooting, before moving on to the problem of campus rape and finally the treatment of prisoners, where he incites the various people he meets to follow his cause. This structural approach has much in common with Steve Jobs that used three product launches to examine the changing issues and personality of the entrepreneur and gave the story both a narrative drive and continual tension as you watched him interact with the same set of people over a number of years. But Against takes a more lightweight approach to Luke’s involvement with these communities; he gathers their stories and brings publicity but Shinn isn’t using this deliberately to give us insight into Luke and his purpose, nor really to the acts of violence described.
While Act One is enjoyable to watch with plenty of dramatic possibilities set up in the various encounters Luke has, Act Two seems to squander almost all of them, turning largely away from the causes and consequences of violence – and away from Assassin’s Creed territory – to Luke’s own personality and the effect of his visit on the ‘disciples’ he leaves behind, people once inspired by his proximity left to fend for themselves. And while that sounds like a sensible direction for the show to take, in practice the effect is muddled and unsatisfactory.
In Act Two, Luke halts his campaign, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and begins to struggle with his feelings for colleague Sheila (Amanda Hale) and a romantic subplot develops between them. He also returns home for a month and looks through old boxes from his school days and even meets up with a former childhood friend, reminiscing about why they lost touch for a while, but doesn’t add anything to our understanding of violence or Luke’s motivation which seemed to be the focus of the first part.
The surrounding cast are also given more spotlight moments in which they move from talking about the violence they encountered to solely discussing Luke, his whereabouts and when he might be returning to their community. These scenes are not sculpted enough to give proper character insight into these various individuals inspired by Luke’s mission, but nor do they properly tell us anything about the way Luke has been perceived and why he inspired people. It frequently mentions detractors but never shows them, so the story seems unevenly loaded towards liking Luke but without proper reasons for doing so.
Against is an odd collection of ideas, philosophies and political standpoints that never really delves beneath the surface of the causes and consequences of violence in society or the characters it follows. It’s not clear what questions Shinn is even asking in its near 3-hour run time and it too often feels that the breadth and complexity of the issues he touches on overwhelmed him, and so, like Luke, Shinn is only creating awareness without teasing out the root causes of the human behaviour that drives people to violence.
Luke has an interesting early conversation with the parents of Tom who shot his schoolfriends and then himself in the cafeteria, as well as hints at the isolation and exclusion that may have driven him to it, but this never fully develops across the show to meaningfully highlight the effects of these acts on his family and friends. Neither does Against build on the other initial theme about what happens to communities when the cameras stop rolling and again, like Luke, Shin becomes distracted by other layers of debate that lead to a meandering and introspective second half that blurs the focus between Luke’s self-discovery and the people he meets.
This production’s saving grace is Ben Whishaw’s magnetic and thoughtful central performance which gives an intensity to the character of Luke that allows the audience to understand why the characters are drawn to him. Happily, this sustains your interest even in the most wayward moments, helping to smooth over the cracks in the work, at least during the period of the play. Whishaw is an actor who could make the back of a cereal packet seem profound, and he uses all his skills here to give life to a character with an almost zealous purpose, but short-attention span for individual causes.
There is an Aspergic quality to Luke, who though highly intelligent, clearly sees the world differently to those around him, where an inability to communicate means he cannot make others see his logic. Again, there are interesting comparisons to be made with Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Steve Jobs, and how the success of tech entrepreneurs can stem from a closure to the emotional world, particularly the sensitivities of others, where logic, science and business-need drive these genius individuals to place machine-like process above human need. And although Whishaw subtly suggests many of these things the text isn’t actually interested in who Luke is and what makes him so special.
In somewhat subverting that, Whishaw commands the stage, introducing a contained physicality into the performance that creates a sense of separateness from the those around him, reinforcing the Jesus-like role he’s cast in (but is also under explored). He uses small gestures such as scrunching his hands or tightening the jaw to convey the mental processes happening beneath the surface as Luke tries to make things fit, and there’s a consistency in the rational-minded man that runs through the play, so he seem as innocence and well-meaning at the end as he was at the start.
The surrounding cast provide solid support in a number of underwritten roles that draw us into the lives of various people Luke meets along the way. As well as Sheila (Amanda Hale), Luke’s long-suffering colleague who facilitates his work while waiting patiently for him to return her feelings, Naomi Wirthner gives a sensitive performance as Tom’s mother deeply affected by her child’s actions but, unlike her husband, open to understanding more about the causes. Kevin Harvey as a former sex-worker turned creative writing Professor gets several scenes in which he coaches Emma D’Arcy’s Anna, herself in a polyamorous relationship that feeds into her writing, but neither of these things develop into properly layered insights into various ways of living, and it’s here that the concepts of violence that Shinn wants to discuss become confused. When attention turns almost entirely to the subplots in the second half, it’s difficult to empathise, despite the performances, because Shinn hasn’t done enough to make us care about them earlier on.
Against is a watchable and pleasant enough experience, but it ends up on too many tangents that never quite add up to a satisfactory experience. It has some valuable points to make about our definition of and response to acts of violence in society, but as the play unfolds it feels like Shinn became so awed by the scale of his creation that the hasty attempt to draw these strands together and find an ending feels wholly unconvincing.
This is a shame for The Almeida after a highly fruitful year that has seen positive acclaim for all of its productions, with Hamlet about to conclude its successful West End transfer and the transfers of Mary Stuart and Ink opening in the next few months. Their run of form had to end sometime and Against probably would have benefitted from another 6-12 months of development to smooth out the many inconsistencies, tie up the loose ends and decide what it really wants to say. Whether this a story about violence, religious idealism, the personalities of tech billionaires or the double-edged sword of charitable donation, Shinn’s play leaves the audience with all the wrong questions at the end. Depsite a very fine performance from Ben Whishaw – which is worth seeing – you leave wondering what was the point of that?
Against is at The Almeida until 30 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1