The Jewish Chronicle
Since Donald Trump became US president and the Brexit referendum took place, it has barely been possible to see a play that doesn’t in some way chime with these subjects. It’s not that the playwright necessarily had them in mind when he or she wrote it. But where a play depicts division, Brexit has a way of bubbling up in the mind, and if there is a populist leader, so does Trump.
Of course, to have this effect a play doesn’t need to be as specific as, say, Nicholas Hytner’s 2018 production of Julius Caesar in which the Roman leader wore a baseball cap. Nor even as on-the-nose as that Shakespeare in the Park production in New York in which Caesar wore a blond wig and a red tie and which many outraged Tump supporters took as a call to assassinate the President.
That show is referred to in Anne Washburn’s play as an example of how the world has shifted since the blond bombshell took office. But Washburn’s play isn’t one of those that make you think about Trump if you are astute or squint hard enough. No, it is actually and unambiguously about Trump.
Set just after former FBI chief James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017, the play is mainly populated by six friends who gather for the housewarming of a gentrified farmhouse in snowy upstate New York.
They are all liberals, and the conversation becomes a kind of self-help, debriefing session. Nobody can still quite believe Trump has happened.
Meanwhile, a solitary African Amer- ican, Mark (Fisayo Akinade) narrates his seemingly unrelated experience of being raised as the adopted black son of white farmers.
This section is an incredibly sensitive piece of writing by Washburn. Mark not only describes the particular distance that being an Africanborn African American puts between him and most American-born African Americans (or perhaps, American Africans), but also how his imagination grapples with the legacy of slavery.
He can conjure the physicality of oppression and of being a slave at the mercy of someone who doesn’t have any. And without wanting to appropriate black experience, it seems to me completely comparable to how a Jew born generations after the Holocaust might put him- or herself in that position. I mention this only because Mark’s impulse seems completely recognisable, to me at last.
Yet, for much of his three-hour evening, it also seems to be a bit of a digression. His father Lawrence , less so. He’s a Trump voter but not a redneck of the kind that the housewarming liberals might think typical.
At one point, their flailing attempts to understand what happened to American politics, and why, invokes the joke that maybe Trump is the devil. And we are suddenly present at that famous meeting between Trump and Comey in which the President is said to have demanded loyalty from the director of the FBI.
In this version, Trump (played vocally to perfection by Elliot Cowan) has a red cloak, a glistening, trim torso and, strangest of all, is intelligent and articulate. Well, it is a fantasy scene and director Rupert Goold turns it into bravura theatre. However, another fantasy in which Trump meets Bush is less rewarding.
Still, the production never drifts and, although liberal navel-gazing may seem an undramatic subject, the play is thrillingly articulate and superbly depicts the marginalisation of a wrong-footed political class used to being at the centre of things.
Risteárd Cooper as Mark’s farmer dad superbly represents the decent impulses that ended up putting what for many is an intellectual and moral vacuum in charge of the most powerful country in the world.
As the first proper Trump play, the bar has been set very high. And in the way it depicts division and liberal handwringing, Shipwreck also chimes strongly with that other issue of the day, Brexit.