Tag Archives: Justine Mitchell

Shipwreck – The Almeida

Shipwreck - The Almeida

The first big Trump play has arrived. It has taken a couple of years for writers to get to grips with the political rollercoaster that both the UK and US have endured since those key votes in 2016 separately plunging both nations into the most extraordinary debacles of the modern era. While our own experience of the Brexit chaos is so fantastical you would never believe it in a play, attempts to examine it openly are still so driven by emotion that incendiary debates rage about the role of art in reflecting politics, history and society as it unfolds – as James Graham discovered with the polarised response to his Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

These issues are, some would argue, are too sensitive, too incomplete to begin to make sense of so instead we subtly nod to them through allusion, inference and by drawing loaded parallels with classic texts. Whether or not you agree with that, Trump’s presidency has left a clear imprint on theatre land even when the show in question is not directly related to him – Jon Culshaw’s impression in a Harold Pinter monologue from the 1980s during the first outing of the Pinter at the Pinter season, or a demigod-ish Caesar at The Bridge Theatre channelling the stylings of the Trumpian electoral campaign. Yet a full-length play inspired entirely by the man himself and the America that made him has taken time to emerge.

First out of the starting gate is Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, opening this week at the Almeida, a 3.5-hour monster of a show that attempts to unpick the US mindset which led to Trump’s shock election and a particular kind of middle-class inertia and complacency that failed to recognise the signs and act to prevent it. Shipwreck is a huge undertaken, looking at politics, class, wealth and race as well as the small stories of friendship, parenthood and identity. If it sounds ambitious then it is, but the result has a baggy and often incoherent messiness that never quite manages to live up to its own expectations.

The play’s sprawling structure is initially its biggest asset, a collection of friends – presumably old College buddies, though we’re not exactly sure – gathered at the newly acquired farmhouse of couple Richard and Jools. As each pair arrives, the intellectualising begins as they debate core moments of the last two years at the White House, pushing each other on points of disagreement and in several cases wrangling over a determination to have the last word. As these arguments play out, there is something of Annie Baker in Washburn’s approach, big conversations that seem to be about nothing but collectively reveal so much about the American psyche and the complexities of everyday life for working people. The hope of eventual coherence keeps you watching, although a number of viewers made their escape at the interval.

Yet, the show fails to offer any notable or really new insight on the first two years of the most alarming President of modern times. Washburn’s play is a rambling essay of known facts, a polemic that charts some of the key events but fails to deliver a solid argument or even to demonstrate its credentials as a theatrical rather than a scholastic experience. Shipwreck’s very discursiveness should eventually coalesce into big themes and concepts as well as insightful and representative character portraits of the assembled group. This dilapidated farmhouse should be a microcosm of America but struggles to be anything other than a lightweight narrative about some fairly smug affluent people who like to argue.

The big failing of Washburn’s play is that these many hours of talking result in two rather obvious conclusions, first that Trump lies and second that no one who votes for him really cares – well, you don’t need 3½ hours of theatre to tell you that. Dramatically, what plot there is, as the group survive a cold night, miles from anywhere, is driven by the supposedly shocking revelation that one of the characters voted for him, not as an act of sabotage in a safe seat but as a deliberate act in a purple state because they decide that Trump is the President America deserves. There’s something of the confessional in the way this is suddenly revealed but Washburn fails to properly draw these characters and their group identity, so when it comes to it this “major” revelation barely registers – the audience just don’t know or care enough about these people to feel the level of shock they experience.

There is a laboured verbosity in how these characters interact with one another, long, complex sentences, the product of rehearsed debate that never sound remotely spontaneous and undermines the reality of the characters. And while there’s something Sorkin-esque about this approach, the play lacks the intellectual clout that makes his work so compelling, so with each scene built around a different point of contention it all becomes a bit a Dawson’s Creek meets The West Wing.

In lieu of real characters, there is instead an excellent group of actors that do everything they can to keep the show alive despite the rather thin material they have to work with – like assembling The Avengers only to tackle a parking dispute – they absolutely carry the show. As the play opens, the scene is set by Raquel Cassidy’s Jools welcoming her tired friends to the inexplicably understocked and ramshackle farmhouse that she and husband Richard (Risteárd Cooper) are renovating. There’s something frail and homely in Cassidy’s performance, a woman who is hiding from the world, offering to bake cookies and lighting candles. Later, rather out of the blue, she argues frantically with the person who voted for Trump, but the play never shows us what her former, possibly waspish, life was and why this pivotal meeting of such different friends is really taking place so far from New York.

Adam James is never less than compelling, and in Shipwreck he brings a sardonic texture to lawyer Andrew who retains his faith in cool logic however impassioned his friends become. But more than the others, James shows us something deeper beneath the surface, a hint of self-knowledge about the protection his privileged lifestyle affords with partner Yusuf as part of the New York elite, troubled by the direction of his country but rational in the weighing-up of facts and emotions. Khalid Abdalla’s Yusuf does well with some big confessional speeches that speak to the association between liberal privilege and Trumpian wealth protection polices, if only his character was anchored enough in the show to make these more meaningful.

The rest of their friendship group is made-up of stereotypes, the poor hippy couple Jim and Teresa implausibly arriving almost immediately from the birth of their first grandchild and activist Allie whose recitation of Trump facts and realisation of her own failure to act initiates most of the debate. How these people have remained friends given their vastly different social spheres is problematic and unlikely, but the performances from Elliot Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Mitchell make them all potentially interesting perspectives on the effects of Trump if only the play could have grounded their lives more convincingly.

Out on his own, monologues from rising star Fisayo Akinade tell a not-quite complementary story of Mark’s childhood, adopted as a boy by white parents and raised in the same farmhouse the liberal New Yorkers now occupy. The experience of inter-racial families, how Mark came to view his own skin colour and his later exploration of competing ideas of black heritage are interesting discussion points which Akinade delivers well. These scenes are accompanied by Cooper and Fitzgerald as Mark’s parents Lawrence and Laurie, who talk about the immigration issues that had long led to Trump’s election, but the three stories never fuse effectively enough to be a truly insightful or meaningful assessment of America’s fate.

Rupert Goold unites the domestic and the political by staging the whole thing on a big round Arthurian table, at which both the actors and audience members sit. For much of the play, the table top becomes the performance space bringing the action more into the laps of the viewer than the tiny Almeida stage normally allows. This idea was used very effectively in a version of King Lear at the Union Theatre some years ago where the battlefield and the political arena became the same space, and for Shipwreck it is an equally useful metaphor for the ways in which societal power intrinsically affects the everyday.

It is a shame that some of the other aspects are less subtle including two rather ghastly fantasy sequences, played like cartoons in which Donald Trump (Cowan) confronts first George Bush (Akinade) and then James Comey (Abdalla). These horrible missteps again show us things we already know, that Trump reimagines his own history to paint himself as the knowledgeable hero and that he sees his unlimited power in terms of who is for and against him – also reiterated in several allusions to God and religious painting that dominate the projected backdrop. In an otherwise straight production that is entirely based on small-scale discussion, these overlong parodies are vastly misjudged. Not seeing Trump at all would have made his presence stronger and more dangerous.

It is a huge shame with so many possibilities in the scenario and script that the first specific Trump play should be such a disappointment, and, despite their excellence with the classics, its hard to remember the last time new writing at the Almeida genuinely astounded (possibly as long ago as Ink). It suffers too from coming so soon after Sweat at the Donmar that has recently earned a deserved West End transfer, Lynn Nottage’s play about disillusion and disenfranchisement in working-class America that manages to be everything Washburn’s play cannot. Shipwreck has its moments and the cast are uniformly excellent, but without strong character investment it dwindles to little more than a few well-hashed arguments we’ve all heard before.

Shipwreck is at The Almeida until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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The Way of the World – Donmar Warehouse

The Way of the World - Donmar Warehouse

Restoration comedy generally takes a rather dim view of marriage; the central lovers may want to overcome every obstacle placed in their path to reach their happy union, but those who are married already want nothing more than to be rid of their boorish, shrewish or philandering spouse. These plays suggest that marriage transforms people and not for the better, so what future awaits the affianced couple? Arguably, it is marriage made for material gain, and between people who are hopelessly incompatible, but William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World shows us that even those people once fancied themselves in love.

The play was written at the latter end of the theatrical form of restoration, as the sobering William and Mary reached the end of their first decade as rulers, offered the throne in place of Charles II’s brother James – an absolutist and a Catholic. While these plays always had a moral element with good and bad getting the ending they deserved, Congreve’s writing introduced the idea of morality of money too. The importance of fortune drives The Way of the World’s plot, peppered with references to dowries and female inheritance, money separates eligible women from those with mere beauty to recommend them.

As the play opens, Fainall is playing cards with the hero Mirabell, who is in love with Millamant, but her aunt, Lady Wishfort, loathes Mirabell and would refuse to pay the £6000 dowry. To trick Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the match, Mirabell plots to use his manservant, Waitwell, (who he has married to Lady Wishfort’s maid Foible) to impersonate an aristocrat and make advances to the middle-aged aunt, assuming that rescuing her from the indignation would earn her eternal gratitude. Fainall meanwhile lives a semi-separated existence from the wife he no longer loves and who despises him in return, but he cannot survive without her money. Fainall is having an affair with Lady Wishfort’s friend Mrs Marwood who hears of Mirabell’s plan and uses it to help her lover lay claim to the rest of his wife’s fortune.

James Macdonald’s production at the Donmar Warehouse is still finding its feet and while some aspects of the farce are working well, particularly once Mirabell’s plan begins to take shape in Act 3, it needs a few more performances for the actors to find an ease with the lines and for the comedy to really sparkle. It’s early days, but with press night this week, it lacks a little bounce and, while the performances are uniformly impressive, they’re not yet fully relishing the full malice or humour of the lines.

It’s a sluggish and quite static start, and it takes a while for the conversation and the complexities of the inter-related plot to warm-up. There is a lot of crucial information in the early discussion between Mirabell and Fainall, so Macdonald has created what feels like an entirely masculine environment that sets the tone really well, but with lots of comings and goings, as yet unseen characters talked about and intrigues aplenty, there isn’t quite enough clarity to help the audience with setting the scene and confirming the tone.

And this is a problem that runs through the production, which sharply vacillates between rather broad slapstick-like comedy, taut social satire and credible emotional engagement, without quite settling into its groove. There is a lot of sneaky plotting in Act Two and Three which could feel more covert and shadowy, and while Witwoud and Petulant have some amusing scenes, even by the end of the play it’s still not clear what role they have really played in proceedings or what relation they are to the rest of the characters – they may be essential but that hasn’t been conveyed as clearly as it could be. Streamlining the play’s current length – at a rather unjustified three and a half hours – could improve the flow and help to focus on the key elements of the plot.

It’s not all bad, and there are plenty of positives which over a few more performances should help to settle the characters and mannerisms. Once they get going, the farcical elements build well as the manservant disguised as Sir Roland enjoys a hilarious encounter with Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne) in her rooms. It’s an exaggerated scene in which the obviously overacting Waitwell (Alex Beckett) exuberantly declares his love for the garish aunt, growing increasingly hilarious as the seduction becomes progressively more lustful.

Macdonald’s production also emphasises the strength of the female characters, whose multiple forms of power is another highlight – while the men may plot and scheme, ultimately they are beholden to the superior fiscal and social power of the ladies. Lady Wishfort holds the future of all the men entirely in her hands, it is in her gift to bestow Millimant’s much debated £6000 dowry on Mirabelle, while she is the route Fainall chooses for his blackmail plot to extort the remained of his wife’s fortune. The other women are equally well drawn; the fiendish Mrs Marwood utilises her single status to exact revenge on her enemies, while maidservant Foible becomes key to enacting Mirabell’s plot, and even the young love interest Millamant is a scathing and authoritative figure dismissing her multiple lovers with a withering put-down.

Macdonald’s emphasis on materiality is also extremely effective, with even the servants becoming embroiled in their master’s schemes based on some sense of human ownership – who else to enact a vicious rouse to enhance your own personal gain, than the people who depend on you for their livelihood. There is also a fascinating scene between Millamant and Mirabell as they indulge in what is essentially a marital bargain, each outlining the terms under which they would accept each other. Crucially, none of these are about love but the right to dominate particular rooms, have their own way whenever they feel like it and to control both those invited into their homes and the conversations permitted. These are two resolutely single people insisting on a mode of living that suits them, a marriage of material comfort.

Geoffrey Streatfeild has some particularly notable experience with restoration comedy, starring in the National Theatre’s superb production of The Beaux’ Stratagem back in 2015. He has an ear for the pace and flow of the writing, able to deliver Congreve’s lines with a natural speed and meaning that bring out the full flavour of Mirabell’s character. Streatfeild’s performances are always worth seeing, and while he was by far the best thing in the recent production of Cellmates at the Hampstead Theatre, bringing a new subtly to the role of the stranded spy in Russia, here again he applies his considerable range to the complex role of the lothario in love.

His Mirabell makes for a credible lover, and in a play where no one else seems to mean any protestation of love, he brings sincerity and underlying emotion to each declaration. In the presence of his object, he seems overwhelmed, almost tongue-tied in admiration as she repeatedly outwits him, enjoying his suffering. Streatfeild conveys deep feeling so well, and despite the powerful intrigues he sets in motion, a genuine heart beats beneath the surface – potentially for a woman who does not deserve his devotion.

As Millamant Justine Mitchell presents a sharp and sarcastic woman who is well aware of her own worth, and willing to play her lovers off against one another for her own amusement. She implies a preference for Mirabelle which is entirely practical, based on the freedom to conduct much of her life as she chooses and to retain her status in town. It’s a refreshing presentation of a female lead in a period drama, and Mitchell makes Millamant’s powerful position clear, certain she will at least be in a marriage of equals. Whether she is in love with Mirabell is debatable, but she at least has the gumption to control or hide her feelings in order to secure the best deal for her future self.

Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Wishfort is a larger-than-life interpretation that suits her farcical scenes quite well. Splendidly, and somewhat gaudily, dressed by Anna Fleischle, Gwynne is clearly having a fantastic time as the fluttery aunt desperate to be seduced one last time, and her performance is at a comedic pitch of nervy anxiety and reawakened passion throughout. She has lots of hilarious moments, although the depth of her loathing for Mirabell (and others) will become deeper as the run progresses.

There is impressive support from Jenny Jules as the scorned Mrs Mawood who enjoys using her power to exact revenge, although Jules could revel in the lines a little more and make them really bite, while her rival Mrs Fainall is given a likeable and controlled exterior by Caroline Martin. Sarah Hadland is an excellent Foible, bringing great timing and delivery to the more farcical elements, and proving that even serving women make feisty wives, while Fisayo Akinade plays up the foppery as Witwoud. There is a general tendency to speed through the lines and occasionally quieter tones are lost in the loud rustle of silk dresses but, again, this should even out as the cast become more confident.

There’s plenty of potential here and the performances, which still feel a little isolated, should become a company effort as more time on the stage familiarises the flow, and repetition reinforces the play’s relationships. Anna Fleischle has designed a set that becomes increasingly feminised as the power shifts from the dark panelling of the all-male first Act where the intrigues are born, to the more elaborately decorated home of Lady Wishfort with carpets, paintings and a chaise longue to imply a richly furnished female space where ultimate power rests.

Macdonald’s production of The Way of the World still has a little more to do ahead of press night to discover its spring and, crucially to bring the audience more fully into the joy of the schemes Congreve sets up. After the interval, the audience in the circle had notably thinned – a result of the long run time in conjunction with the slightly flat first couple of Acts – but the remainder is worth staying for as the core plot and comedy ramp-up, ending with a well-choreographed formal dance. The Donmar’s new version of Congreve’s play has plenty of musings on marriage and the role of women which still feel extremely pertinent; it just needs to even out the tone to make this restoration comedy really fizz.

The Way of the World is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 May. Tickets start at £10 with Klaxon tickets released every Monday at 12pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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