Now or Later has made me look forward to Christopher Shinn’s work, but so far none of his other plays have lived up to that one for me. His latest premieres at the Almeida in a production by Ian Rickson, and tries to deal with huge issues of faith and the human capacity for violence, as a self-made billionaire believes he’s been given a message from god to go out into the world and solve America’s violence problem. Ben Whishaw is no stranger to playing messianic figures so he’s a natural match to Against’s protagonist Luke, a tech and aerospace giant who leaves behind all his companies when he claims to have been given a divine message to “go where the violence is.” He interprets this vague missive as meaning he should travel to the scenes of violent crimes and stay there long after the press have moved on to the next story, collecting feelings and reactions from the survivors and compiling their stories on a website.
His first stop is a town where a high school shooting took place, and after making a few more stops and starting to build up a following, he ends up in the packing warehouse of NOT AMAZON DEFINITELY NOT AMAZON, a company owned by an old friend and rival.
Nominally this last stop is because it’s near a prison where an inmate was killed by a guard, but perhaps it’s all part of a greater plan as Luke starts to make as many enemies as he does followers, and the violence is coming to him. At least that’s one attempt I can make to make sense of a frustratingly vague play that meanders around its themes without ever really convincing that it knows where it’s ultimately going. It’s a shame because there are moments where it really comes to life as Luke discovers the pitfalls waiting for any modern-day messiah, like when one would-be disciple (Emma D'Arcy and her frankly alarming mullet) develops an obsession with him, and particularly when an unrecognisable Kevin Harvey as a flamboyant creative writing professor berates him for not focusing his mission on his own preoccupations.
Another interesting scene sees teenager Tim (Fehinti Balogun,) the school shooter’s childhood friend, confess to Luke how he dropped his friend once they got to high school, and the inevitable feeling that this might have contributed to what he did. There’s good performances from Elliot Barnes-Worrell and Adelle Leonce as not-quite-romancing colleagues at IT’S NOT AMAZON OK, YOU SHOULD INFER NOTHING FROM THE IDENTICAL LOGO but their connection to the main story remains oblique to say the least. Meanwhile Amanda Hale struggles with Sheila, Luke’s assistant and the story’s attempt at giving him a romantic interest – I blame the writing rather than the actor for the fact that Sheila fails to come across as having any personality whatsoever, as when Hale doubles in a much smaller role she's actually much more credible.
Then there’s Whishaw at the centre of it all, his stage presence and quiet charisma anchoring the play. In fact Shinn doesn’t entirely come out of this badly as although story and character feel underdeveloped, his ear for dialogue keeps this entertaining, especially in the first act. I don’t think Rickson’s production helps though – on a sparse (and too wide, really, for this theatre’s sightlines) design by Ultz, the effect is presumably meant to be stark and brutal but for me ended up feeling rather cold and detached – the super-bright captions at the start of each scene didn’t help, the projection was so bright I had to keep looking away from the stage. Ultimately a disappointment as a number of ideas, both in writing and production, get thrown at the stage without cohering into something that says much.
Against by Christopher Shinn is booking until the 30th of September at the Almeida Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.