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A CurtainUp London Review
"There are no narratives that offer a more positive view of sex work." — Dean
Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)
With a wonderful poster for Against featuring a portrait of Ben Whishaw which looks as if it had been painted by the popular Russian artist of the 1960s, Vladimir Tretchikoff (remember his green Chinese Girl), Ben Whishaw looks handsome and wistful. He stars in Christopher Shinn's latest play which is being premiered here in London at Islington's Almeida Theatre as Luke, a Silicon Valley inventor and billionaire who now wants to take his life in another direction.

The thinking behind Against is that in Silicon Valley there are very bright people who can invent an app for every eventuality, geniuses and original thinkers. However, we are also in world where unstoppable environmental meltdown seems to be on the horizon and every day there are reports of acts of terrorism and, in America, gun rampages in schools and campuses. The play opens with a crime scene. A white awning is behind some scene of crime tape and is being dismantled by police officers wearing forensic suits. We gather from the video footage that there has been a high school shooting with dead students.

Luke is telling his assistant Sheila (Amanda Hale) that he has heard the voice of God telling him, "Go where there's violence." Luke talks about how people see him. He has inventions covering space travel and artificial intelligence. "They think of me as a Silicon Valley billionaire." coupled with, "We are destroying ourselves on every level." He decides to go to the town where teenager Tom has massacred many of his classmates and then killed himself to talk to people, to find out what has happened.

Luke starts with Tom's parents, (Naomi Wirthner and Martin McDougall) talking about their son. The mother seeks an explanation but the father dismisses this by condemning his own son as "born bad". Luke then visits the high school campus talking to Tim (Fehinti Balogun) a student who has survived and who once was good friends with Tom. We meet the Dean of Students (Nancy Crane) and a professor who used to be a sex worker, played with hugely camp enjoyment by Kevin Harvey. Much of the discussion centres around implicit violence and there is some satirical, political correctness as the professor tries to paint the role of sex worker in a positive light, backed of course by the side stepping, pussy footing hierarchy of the higher education institution.

Shinn's play feels episodic and is inevitably a bit wordy with its didactic analysis as to exactly what constitutes violence, running at just under three hours with the interval. I am not sure what director Ian Rickson could have done to tighten it, but tightening is needed. The pleasure comes in individual scenes: the professor's creative writing student, Anna (Emma D'Arcy) whose tutorials are less than helpful but very funny. Anna discusses her polyamorous sex life and the impact of change on her partners with her professor and with Luke.

Later people gather to wait and see Luke as he is expected at the local mega warehouse for a company called Amazon, no it's Equator, but thinly disguised, and where staff are filling orders and pricing items in trolleys. Here there are two young African Americans, Tracey (Adele Leonce) and Melvyn (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) who are representative of Luke' growing following. Another Equator worker, a truck driver later breaks into threatened violence and Luke volunteers to deal with the situation himself.

We see John, the CEO of Equator (again Kevin Harvey) devise an app which he claims will take consumerism away from individual decision making and network the process but of course this isn't a democratisation of consumerism as he claims, but a disguised marketing tool to sell more products through Equator.

Ben Whishaw is a fascinating actor to watch and his performance is the golden thread running through the production. Amanda Hale as his employee and wannabe girlfriend is also excellent. She urges caution on whether Luke should make his God filled mission public. We realise we are watching a new saviour as Shinn's play becomes increasingly messianic. It is a play of ideas rather than a joined up drama and there are some seminars arranged to expand on the theories about violence which would probably be helpful.

The next play at the Almeida in their exciting Autumn programme is Albion, a new play from Mike Bartlett.

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Written by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Ian Rickson
Starring: Amanda Hale, Ben Whishaw, Kevin Harvey
With: Fehinti Balogun, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Nancy Crane, Emma D'Arcy, Adele Leonce, Martin McDougall, Philippe Spall, Gavin Spokes, Naomi wirthner
Designer: Ultz
Lighting Design: Charles Balfour
Sound Design: Gregory Clark
Video: Robin Fisher
Movement: Imogen Knight
Composition: Mark Bradshaw
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 30th September 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st August 2017 performance at Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel)
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