Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017
Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it. When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better. There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.
Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics. He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations. And he is fallible. His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets. Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.
Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are. The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider. Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here. One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.
Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush. Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter. Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness. The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.
Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today. Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.