Imagine you’re at a dinner party with friends and the topic of Donald Trump comes up. Very quickly the discussion becomes a debate as to how Trump came to power, with various hypotheses being thrown about by the more vocal guests who, despite having varying backgrounds and incomes, are all white, middle class folk. As political stances clash – with some guests even exposing themselves as Trump voters – you find yourself unable to chime in. Instead you merely nod timidly in agreement to all the points and references made, some of which you don’t wholly understand. That, my friends, is the main plot of Shipwreck.
An astonishing three hours in length, Anne Washburn’s new play attempts to dissect the current political climate in the US, as a group of old friends find themselves cut off from society during a snowstorm. With a bare pantry and no alcohol to fuel the conversation (though as Raquel Cassidy’s Jools rightly points out, who doesn’t bring wine to a dinner party?), the group find themselves instead trying to ascertain how Trump won the election, and just why his supporters fail to see his obvious flaws. Well-known names are brought up in the discussion, including James Comey and Ivanka Trump – with Justine Mitchell’s character Allie’s obsession with the latter becoming increasingly amusing. For the most part, however, there are some arguments made that will likely go way over non-Americans’ heads, even with the ‘Top Trumps’ guide of ‘Who’s who’ included in the show’s programme.
Thankfully, the action (or inaction, rather) here is broken up by two running monologues. The first is Risteárd Cooper’s Lawrence, a Southerner who tells us of how he and his wife came to adopt an African boy, Mark. Said child is played by Fisayo Akinade, who as an adult remembers his childhood growing up in an all-white community. Akinade’s character brings an intriguing narrative to Shipwreck, for Mark is both a participant and spectator in black culture. His history, he remarks, is different from theirs. He notes how, as a young boy, he imagined working on a plantation in the 1800s; a reality his family never had to face. The innocence in his curiosity, along with his confusion concerning where he fits into the Afro-American community, are both striking. The poignancy of his narrative could easily be a play in itself, and it’s a shame that his experience is secondary to the diatribes that dominate the main action. What is more, the tenuous link that connects the two narratives together doesn’t stop Shipwreck from feeling as though it is two plays that have been forcibly merged together.
In one scene, Allie cajoles her friends for not doing something to stop Trump from being elected, for speaking up against him on social media or on the streets. As Adam James’ character points out, however, such protestations are empty; the tireless rants that fill up people’s timelines rarely amount to anything. Unfortunately, that message resonates throughout the rest of Shipwreck. Even the production value, while aesthetically impressive – particularly the large totem pole in the back casting a shadow over the case – adds little to the story. The various iconographic images of Ivanka and Donald as the Madonna and Jesus projected onto the stage wall are provocative, sure, but they add a religious element that is otherwise absent.
So, what does Washburn hope to achieve with this production? Whose side is she on? The answer to this question becomes even less obvious when the man himself, Mr Donald Trump, unexpectedly makes an appearance onstage. In these incredibly surreal scenes, we see Trump tussle with then-President Bush over the Iraq War, and later as a golden Roman Emperor trying to get the Director of the FBI to bend to his wishes. Doubling up as Trump, Elliot Cowan does well to avoid immediately adopting the Trump voice so many love to impersonate. Still, his standoff with Akinade as George W. Bush feels awkward and the unnerving, ritualistic interrogation of Comey drags on. These theatrical scenes are bewildering. They add no coherency to the arguments at hand in Shipwreck – though perhaps that is the point. Still, the lasting impression you are likely to be left with upon leaving the Almeida is not the astute political reading of America, but instead seeing the President in a red velvet cape with matching underwear.
Whether a Brexit equivalent would be better received in America is unlikely; even with Theresa May’s dancing and Boris Johnson… well… being Boris, the showmanship that Trump has just isn’t there. Still, Shipwreck doesn’t shock us with anything we didn’t already know about America and its divisive political views. It’s a real shame, as the British-Irish cast do their best to keep the audience engaged for as long as they can. There is sincerity and conviction behind their words, as if they were directly affected by the vote. Unfortunately though, when you’re all talk and no action, eventually people stop listening.