Writer: Robert Schenkkan
Director: Jez Bond
Reviewer: Christie-Luke Jones
Building The Wall is an unsettling glimpse into a dystopian (near) future in which Trump’s America has declared martial law.
The stage is a sterile prison meeting room in El Paso, Texas. The audience watches through Perspex walls as Rick (Trevor White), a Caucasian man in his 40s clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, is interviewed by Gloria (Angela Griffin), an African-American woman also in her 40s.
Rick is on trial for what the audience assumes is a serious and high-profile crime, with Gloria keen to gain an insight into his story for both societal, and as per her own frank admission, personal financial gain.
The opening exchanges between Rick and Gloria are largely expositional, with the audience learning the broad strokes of both character’s upbringings – particularly their exposure to racial tension in the US during their formative years and, in Rick’s case, how this has shaped his present-day political leanings.
There’s nothing overly ground-breaking about either character’s backstory. Rick’s status as a veteran is foregrounded, as is his strong work ethic and intellectual humility. It’s later revealed that Gloria’s brother also served as a marine, which serves as a bridging device between her and Rick.
The issue here is that what should be an inherently fractious and arrhythmic exchange is surprisingly smooth-going. Both characters are eloquent and quick-witted, and their early conversations are replete with what come across as unnaturally well-timed quips and clever but stilted uses of wordplay.
There are, however, pleasing moments of spikiness from White’s character, such as when he believes he is being accused of using his flat feet as an excuse for not becoming a Marine. These spikes are what effectively usher in the dramatic meat of the play – White’s loquacious outbursts effectively foreshadowing the play’s big reveal, as well as injecting a welcome shot of danger into space between the two leads.
Indeed, when Griffin’s Gloria sets to gradually teasing out the narrative that landed Rick in his current predicament, Building The Wallmorphs into the unnerving political thriller that one might expect from such incendiary subject matter.
White skilfully channels Rick’s hard-working family man caught up in the hysteria of a new Presidential appointment. One moment he is recounting his first meeting with President Trump with a wide-eyed admiration that encroaches on hero worship, the next he is spitting venom at the ‘top brass’ for passing the buck his way.
Griffin does an admirable job of portraying Gloria’s tempered enthusiasm for Rick’s story, opening and closing both the physical and emotional distance between the two characters in sync with the accused’s more unsettling or impassioned revelations.
Arguably, however, Griffin could do more with her reactions at certain junctures – she rarely betrays her cool temperament and this at times dampens the effect of White’s pleasingly multi-shaded portrayal of a man torn apart by his own emotional and moral conflict.
Despite the aforementioned slow start, Building The Wall grows into the uncomfortable, attention-grabbing piece of theatre that its powder keg premise warrants. Aside from some clunky character exposition, this is a mesmerising play that unfurls a hauntingly thrilling narrative that is enriched by Trevor White’s impressively nuanced performance.
Runs until: 2 June | Image: Mark Douet