×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘Against’ Starring Ben Whishaw

With:
Fehinti Balogun, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Nancy Crane, Emma D’Arcy, Amanda Hale, Kevin Harvey, Adelle Leonce, Martin McDougall, Philippe Spall, Gavin Spokes, Ben Whishaw, Naomi Wirthner.

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.

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.

London Theater Review: 'Against' Starring Ben Whishaw

Almeida Theatre, London; 325 seats; £39.50 ($51) top. Opened Aug. 19, 2017, reviewed August 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Production: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in two acts by Christopher Shinn.

Creative: Directed by Ian Rickson; Design, Ultz; lighting, Charles Balfour; sound, Gregory Clark; movement, Imogen Knight; composition, Mark Bradshaw; video, Robin Fisher.

Cast: Fehinti Balogun, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Nancy Crane, Emma D’Arcy, Amanda Hale, Kevin Harvey, Adelle Leonce, Martin McDougall, Philippe Spall, Gavin Spokes, Ben Whishaw, Naomi Wirthner.

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Related London Theater Review: ‘Mary Stuart’ at the Almeida Theater Her publicist B. [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content