Hear ye the Gospel of Luke – as written for our times by the playwright Christopher Shinn. In “Against,” Ben Whishaw’s earnest Luke is a tech billionaire supposedly instructed by God: “Go where there’s violence.” The play follows him there, into the agonies — large and small, overt and implicit — plaguing America today. To school shootings and campus culture wars, to drug dens, race riots and the factory floor of an Amazon-style sorting depot. Shinn shows us a society stuck in a spin-cycle, where violence begets yet more violence, and, through Luke’s example, asks how we might start to resist and repair. In Ian Rickson’s crisp, centered staging at the Almeida Theatre, it becomes a play that practices its preaching; art that attempts to find an alternative.
Luke’s a man on a mission — one he believes heaven-sent. A Silicon Valley superstar who built billions in artificial intelligence and rocket science, he gives up his old life in a bid to do something more messianic. He’s a familiar figure — think Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates — but in Whishaw’s hands, a sympathetic one too: serious but sensitive, equal parts self-assurance and self-doubt. Accompanied by his disciple-cum-lover, former tech journalist Sheila (Amanda Hale), he moves into afflicted communities aiming to inspire them to talk through their trauma. In each, Luke makes himself available for as long as needs be — listening, mediating and hoping to help heal. Eventually, each community pushes him away and reverts to the status quo.
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Luke’s journey, really, allows Shinn to anatomize the violence coursing through America’s veins today. He scythes through the structures of late capitalist society — hierarchies and injustices, exploitation and exclusion — and finds as much violence in the right-on college tutor (a brilliantly bitchy Kevin Harvey) imposing ideas on his students as in a small town mourning a school shooting. It’s in the addict whose friendly flatmate doubles as his dealer, and in the daily grind of two minimum-wage workers (Adelle Leonce and Ellliot Barnes-Worrell) struggling to survive in that sorting office, bossed by their lazy and lascivious line manager, while the smooth-talking head honcho (Harvey again) boasts of eco-credentials and automated efficiency.
Whether or not Luke is genuinely doing God’s bidding isn’t important. What matters is an individual trying to do good, exclusively, in a society steeped in violence. Like Luke’s Gospel itself, “Against” asks whether it’s possible to be a good citizen in a corrupt empire. Luke’s past directly implicates him in the problems he’s pushing against. His wealth and celebrity are privileges — means of doing good that nonetheless entrench structural inequality — and his actions are undermined because he’s not blemish-free. A talismanic watch draws attention to time pressure. Luke’s ethics are a luxury most can’t afford.
In that, Shinn squares up to the impossibility of doing absolute good. For every person Luke helps, he abandons someone else; every cause he takes up leaves another ignored. Charity privileges its recipients. Inclusivity can’t be absolute. By devoting himself to the world’s ills, Luke neglects those closest to him, notably Hale’s ever-patient Sheila. The personal and the political are invariably at odds.
Shinn’s writing lets us see all this with real clarity. His play’s episodic, and his dialogue’s slightly starched, as if he’s borrowed both structure and style from the Bible. That makes “Against” a modern morality play, one that takes time and gives space. Rickson’s patient production, on designer Ultz’s pine floor, lets it do both. It privileges words over action, confining images of violence to a single small screen. Shinn suggests that such images perpetuate violence. “Against” refuses to represent any more. Its opening image — a white police tent — is a tacit acknowledgement of theatre’s own guilt; the stage as a crime scene. “Against” extricates itself from that and offers a genuine artistic alternative.