Against is a state of the nation play for American millennials, touching on spree killings, race, polyamorous relationships, safe spaces and the cult of personality in Silicon Valley. A TV screen that’s occasionally wheeled onto stage shows news footage of protests and candle-lit vigils, and while it was presumably put together prior to the events in Charlottesville, it couldn’t feel more current.
But while it’s wildly ambitious in its scope and occasionally brilliant in its execution, it’s too often sterile and directionless. It weaves a tapestry of life in America, but offers no real clue of how that tapestry should be viewed, or even which way up it goes.
It’s told from the perspective of Luke, a tech billionaire who receives a message from God to “go where there’s violence”. So he walks away from his rockets and solar panels and artificial intelligence and begins a kind of violence road-show, travelling around the country, looking for trouble. He begins by interviewing the parents of a high-school shooter, searching for meaning in the seemingly meaningless. Then he visits a university campus where there’s been a sexual assault, and later still spends time with some drug addicts.
Each of these sections stand largely alone, little vignettes that seem intended to serve some ill-defined greater purpose. The writing is sharp, however, with each encounter offering moments of tenderness or laugh-out-loud humour. During one exchange, in which a relationship between two peripheral characters takes a turn for the sinister, an audience member involuntarily – and very loudly – exclaimed “What!”, which shows you how absorbing Christian Shinn’s writing can be.
The big casting draw is Ben Whishaw as the Elon Musk-cum-Christ figure, and while he acquits himself well, it’s a strange part for him to take on. It’s not the meaty role you associate with actors of Whishaw’s standing, with no particularly memorable monologues or real emotional arcs. He’s likeable – something Whishaw deserves some credit for, given how obnoxious the character could have been – but his presence is generally a catalyst for those around him. Luke is involved in his own will-they-won’t-they love story with his ghost writer Sheila, but it’s just one strand among many.
If it were a film, you’d say it would benefit from a second viewing, allowing you to pick up on the more subtle references and perhaps better connect the sections with the benefit of hindsight (the ending at least partially ties them all together) but that’s hardly practical with a play.
Perhaps in the future, when (with any luck) some of these issues aren’t as pertinent as they are now, Against will be viewed as a fascinating snapshot of a bygone era. But while the problems are frighteningly real, its reluctance to do more than observe works to its detriment.