Power of Sail – Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Paul Grellong

Director: Dominic Dromgoole

Set at Harvard before Covid and before the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Paul Grellong’s Power of Sail is a smart examination of university life where free speech is increasingly under attack. When history professor Charles Nichols invites white nationalist, Carver, to speak at his prestigious symposium, it, quite rightly, proves to be contentious. Students protest outside his building while colleagues plead with him to change his mind and disinvite the provocative figure who also is a Holocaust denier. What follows is a story of betrayal and intrigue.

It’s not that Charles has any sympathy with far-right politics. Indeed, his academic field is on Nazi groups in pre-War America. He’s even written books on it that are used to train FBI agents. He tells his colleagues and two of his PhD candidates that the best way to combat hate speech is to have more speech. He hopes to expose the white supremacist’s beliefs on a public stage.

However, perhaps he has other reasons for courting controversy. No one has read his new book while one ex-colleague is now a famous TV pundit. A younger professor has just published her book, Against Whiteness, which everyone has read. Does Charles hope that the turmoil the symposium is sure to create will revitalise his stagnant career? He dismisses the wokeness of university students and is determined that the white nationalist will have a place at the table.

But when the white nationalist invites Charles to his compound for dinner a tragedy strikes that puts Charles under the spotlight like never before and his reputation as a Harvard professor is ruined. His liberal colleagues are revealed to be not so liberal after all.

As Charles, Julian Ovenden is affable and energetic. However, while it’s easy to see why the professor is so liked by his students, his determination to go forward with the lecture series appears foolhardy, to say the least. There’s just enough jitteriness about Ovenden to suggest that there are other reasons why he wants to give the podium to such an odious man as Carver.

Tanya Franks is perhaps a little too cold as the Dean. She teaches gender studies at Harvard but her iciness seems unlikely to enthral students in the lecture hall. Her efficiency, however, acts as a nice foil to Charles’s dangerous fancies. As professor-turned-celebrity, Baxter Forrest is played by Giles Terera (who recently worked with Franks in the National Theatre’s Othello). Baxter could be the moral heart of the story if it weren’t for his slightly inappropriate behaviour when he first meets Charles’s PhD student Quinn (Georgia Landers).

Charles’s other PhD student, Lucas, finishing up his thesis on 17th-century agrarian Sweden, is Grellong’s best creation. At first, Michael Benz is all geekiness, but as the play progresses, a darker confidence moves in seen in the way he quizzes Charles about implicit racism. “Are you proud to be white?” Lucas asks Charles as they wait for the train to take them to Carver’s secure compound. Benz slowly shows the audience that Lucas is more resourceful than initially supposed.

When the play switches tack, as suggested by its title, a reference to the nautical tradition of motorboats giving way for sailboats, the focus on the problems with free speech is exchanged for a more traditional mystery, but the voyage is nevertheless gripping. Sensibly played without an interval and with Paul Farnsworth’s handsome sliding wooden set, Power of Sail is riveting from start to finish.

Runs until 12 May 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Riveting Thriller

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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