Review: Shipwreck

February 22, 2019
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You wait months for a fractured, meandering, three hour play about politics and then two come along at once. Following the Old Vic’s tortuous reheating of Arthur Miller’s depression-era memoir The American Clock comes the Almeida’s Shipwreck, a new play that concerns itself with the bleeding edge of the Trump presidency.

It begins with a bunch of American Democrat voters arriving for a party in an old farmhouse. The conversation quickly turns to politics: “I haven’t has a Trump free 24 hours in over a year” says one. They chat about how it’s difficult to hate Ivanka because she’s pretty, and how a sizeable minority of Republican voters genuinely believe Hillary Clinton has killed hundreds of people. There’s an easy eloquence to these scenes, a plausible facsimile of those played out at dinner parties across the world.

Anna Washburn’s (Mr Burns and The Twilight Zone, both also at the Almeida) play is sharp enough not to lionise the Democrats, pointing out their hypocrisies as well as their righteous indignation. She also grapples self-referentially with theatre’s ability – or lack thereof – to address the here-and-now, with musings on whether censorship was perhaps the key to Shakespeare’s longevity, forcing him towards abstractions and fables.

But Shipwreck soon becomes unmanageably complex, with individual strands lost amid a knotted whole. Just as one idea begins to bed in, another muscles it from view, with the action flitting from decade to decade, prose to poetry, reality to fantasy.

Much of the narrative hinges on a single, demonstrable lie told by Trump during the primaries, since largely forgotten: that he petitioned against the Iraq war so strongly that George W Bush sent a delegation from the White House to ask him to “cool it”. This leads into an imagined meeting between the two men in which an erudite Trump physically and intellectually dominates the witless Dubya.

A later fantasy imagines the infamous meeting between Trump and former FBI director James Comey; a painfully overblown exchange in which the President is portrayed as a Caligula-esque demagogue, spray-painted gold and clad in a pair of red trunks. In America this may be provocative – at a continent’s remove, it’s just facile.

There’s probably enough material here for three fairly decent plays, but smashing them all together into a single, seething mass does the entire project – not to mention the audience – a disservice. Shipwreck, alas, ends up dashed against the rocks of its own ambition.