As Harold Wilson once reputedly said “A week is a long time in politics”. It’s now just that long since a mob attacked the Capitol Building in Washington in Donald Trump’s support but, equally, it’s also that long until he is no longer President of the US – whatever he may think. How did the country get to where it is with a President being impeached twice? Without providing all the answers, Anne Washburn’s drama Shipwreck winds back time to try and explore how the land of the free became so tainted in this audio play co-produced by New York’s Public Theater and Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Company. The latter premiered this piece in February last year just as Covid started doing its stuff and the run became limited. However, the play was actually first produced by Rupert Goold at London’s Almeida three years earlier when the events it describes were less than weeks old.
There are three distinct strands to this play. In the first we are plunged into a weekend gathering of some of the liberal elite of New York as they meet up in a converted farmhouse belonging to hosts Jools (Sue Jean Kim) and Richard (Richard Topol). They are the sort of people that I would personally find exasperating as they talk and talk and talk ….. and do precisely nothing although one of them does protest quite a bit – on Facebook! This is a group of people adrift in the soup of their own principles, or at least what they think are their principles, or at least what they think their principles ought to be. When it comes to practically coping with anything these members of the chattering classes are unable to do so. The host has been too busy to get to a supermarket to buy groceries. Never mind – they can go to that expensive restaurant instead – except that a snowstorm hits and they can’t get out. Forced into trivial disagreements about how to eat hot dogs with freezer burn, they soon begin to reveal their true natures as they start to turn on each other. And then, symbolically, the generator fails and all the lights go out; one of the guests reveals he has betrayed his Democrat principles. As this awful revelation bubbles to the surface, we begin to understand that these people have contributed directly to the rise of Trump and effectively handed over power largely through inertia but also from some duplicitous doublethink and that in many ways they really have nothing to complain about.
In the second strand, a white farmer Lawrence (Bruce McKenzie) monologues about his adopted Kenyan son and ruminates on how he has found life in his new home. As far as I can gather the Almeida production actually featured the son talking directly about his own experiences of America. This seems to me to be a far better way of covering off this aspect and I would be intrigued to know why such a wholesale change was made. Whatever the case, this character also talks a lot, but he does say rather more and in many ways what is said stands at the heart of the play. The final strand has the plot taking off into fantasy land as we hear Donald Trump (Bill Camp) and his interactions with, separately, George W. Bush (Phillip James Brannon) and James Comey (Joe Morton), the Head of the FBI who was basically fired for daring to be disloyal. In the best satiric traditions Trump’s monstrous persona dominates in scenes that would really have benefitted from a visual dimension.
Again, there is a lot of talking for this is a lengthy play which allows character after character to hold forth about how the world should be, according to them. And do the three sections bind together? Not to this reviewer, visually the overlap may well have been revealed but this audio version struggles to make the links clear enough. As a result, I found it quite hard to remain fully alert to all the nuances. Having a less than ideal grasp of American politics also doesn’t help but that’s my fault not theirs. However, there are definitely positives in the technological sphere; the audio engineering by UltaViolet Audio and general sound design by Palmer Hefferan ensure that, with headphones, the experience is an immersive one. But ultimately this isn’t enough to propel this rather elephantine drama directed by Saheem Ali into the first ranks. The play’s ironic subtitle, A History Play About 2017, tells us that the author is presenting a series of case studies about how America’s recent past has come to be but as a coherent play it doesn’t quite make the grade. Very soon though, now, it may prove interesting to full time historians examine the most recent presidency and a turbulent time for the browbeaten country as The Donald prepares to exit stage (very) right.
Shipwreck is available as a multi-part podcast on Public Theater’s website – click here
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