Writer: Christopher Shinn
Director: Ian Rickson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Christopher Shinn’s new play Against is proof that no good deed goes unpunished, and in the world of tech billionaires you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We take quite a contradictory view of big multinationals or famous entrepreneurs patronising the arts or starting charity missions – they have so much money we expect them to share it, but criticise organisations who accept the funding. But, Shinn asks, what if the desire to help came not just from a desire for social justice, but as a direct order from God?
Luke is a billionaire who has made his money from designing rockets, but after hearing the voice of God he is directed to focus on the perpetrators and victims of all kinds of violence. On a tour of America as he bounces between the aftermath of a high school shooting, campus rape and the treatment of prisoners, he incites the various people he meets to follow his cause. But, as Luke grows closer to colleague Sheila, he starts to learn more about himself, and so withdraws from his high-profile campaign, leaving his ‘followers’ wondering where they go from here.
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. While it sets up a number of possible avenues for Luke (Ben Whishaw) to follow in its more structured first half, the meandering and introspective nature of the second blurs the focus between Luke’s self-discovery and a budding romance between workers at a food processing plant.
It’s not clear what questions Shinn poses in its near 3-hour run time and while Luke has an interesting early conversation with the parents of Tom who killed his school friends, this never develops into a message about the origins of violent behaviour. And nor is it entirely about the consequences either, as an initial theme about what happens to communities when the cameras stop rolling also dissipates rather quickly, because Shinn introduces more layers of debate on different kinds of exclusion as acts of violence, without really elucidating any of them.
The central character is also potentially quite fascinating, a rather shy and diffident young man with an ability to see logical solutions to large problems but unable to communicate his ideas clearly to other people. And while the second act gives Luke a brief encounter with his past, it again throws up far more questions than it answers, and we never really understand why his scientific mind so readily accepts that he’s hearing God, or how the Silicon Valley lifestyle has shaped his determination to undertake this missionary cause.
What keeps the audience gripped is Ben Whishaw’s magnetic central performance, which makes a lot of these issues seem less problematic, at least for the time you’re in the theatre. Whishaw gives Luke slightly Aspergic qualities and though highly intelligent, it’s clear he sees the world differently to those around him and cannot always think beyond his own rational reaction to events.
He commands the stage by introducing a contained physicality into the performance, using 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. But there’s also a consistency in the character and an innocence about the world which makes Whishaw’s performance more layered than the man on the page.
There’s solid support in a number of broad brush roles from Amanda Hale as Luke’s supporter and love-interest Sheila, Naomi Wirthner as Tom’s mother sensitively affected by her child’s actions, and Kevin Harvey as a former sex-worker turned creative writing Professor, but none of these subplots is well enough developed to create much empathy with the various scenarios presented.
Against has some potentially valuable points to make about our response to violent acts in society and the responsibility for helping those affected. But, as the play unfolds it feels like Shinn became overwhelmed by the issues he raises in Act One, and decided (unsuccessfully) to switch to characterisation in Act Two in order to find a neat -and wholly unconvincing – ending.
Why tech billionaires behave as they do and why their charitable activity becomes so controversial is never properly explored, and Shinn leaves the audience with too many loose ends and unanswered questions. But with Whishaw centre stage and a good supporting cast, you don’t entirely mind.
Runs until 30 September 2017 | Image: Johan Persson