In her mad, brilliant play ‘Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play’, US playwright Anne Washburn imagined the memory of an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ as the basis for an entire post-apocalyptic society. And in her imminent West End transfer of hit ‘The Twilight Zone’ she posits the popular ’50s sci-fi TV show as a sort of origin myth for modern America. She is fascinated with the stories the US tells about itself.
And there is no figure more surrounded by myth in modern America than Donald Trump, who Washburn takes on – albeit in typically out-there fashion – via latest play ‘Shipwreck’, her second to premiere at the Almeida.
There are multiple layers of stories and symbolism inside Washburn’s sprawling, Russian doll-like work, with the main part focusing upon a group of liberal, middle-class friends who stay over at a remote Vermont holiday home. A fine cast of actors – I particularly enjoyed Raquel Cassidy’s gently withering host, Jools – make hay with entertaining dialogue, but it’s undeniably wilfully static, talky stuff.
And always the conversation comes back to Trump. Could they have done more to stop him? Why did one of their number vote for him? Is he the literal Antichrist? And – in the most shamelessly meta scene – is it possible to write a play about him?
If it occasionally feels more like a thesis than a drama, ‘Shipwreck’ is a smart, surreal interrogation of white liberal America’s relationship with the tangerine tyrant. Too insulated from Trump’s excesses by their privilege to be materially affected, Jools and pals relate to the president via the stories they create around him and the narratives they ascribe to him; he is an almost folkloric being.
That’s underscored by the two most audacious scenes of Rupert Goold’s largely low-key production, in which Trump himself appears, as portrayed by the wild-haired Elliot Cowan. In the first, he’s a smart, dignified, almost Bruce Wayne-like figure, who Fisayo Akinade’s George W Bush is begging to stop criticising the Gulf War. He is the Trump of Trump’s imagination, the titan he would be if all his lies were true. It is, naturally, the funniest scene in the play.
I’m not going to spoil his second appearance, but let’s just say it goes the other way. It’s Trump as Colonel Kurtz, an unfathomable monstrosity gibbering out profane nonsense in the dark, the horror we perhaps all want him to be. The sequence probably out-weirds the final part of ‘Mr Burns’, which is really saying something.
In addition to all this – it is a very long play – Akinade pops up sporadically as Mark, an African-born American adopted by white parents. His story is separate to everyone else’s: it’s about his attempt to find a narrative for his own life. Raised by white people and without slaves for ancestors, he doesn’t deny his ethnicity, but feels detached from the African-American cultural narratives people ascribe to him. It’s a fascinating subplot, and great to see Akinade, one of our great comic actors, having something more serious to get his teeth into. But it feels like the play’s biggest indulgence, a diversion that has the vague air of something Washburn is smuggling in here because a whole play on that subject from a white writer would be a no-no.
‘Shipwreck’ is flawed because ‘Shipwreck’ is daring. There will be those who hate it, because they hate its wordiness or simply find it too weird. It is a play on the subject of Donald Trump that ducks the crushing responsibility of being a play about Donald Trump. But for Washburn, that works out just fine. If his victory was, above all, a triumph of lies over truth, then Washburn is the perfect author to sift for shards of wisdom in the rubble he has left behind.