This ambitious new play asks some big questions. Ian Rickson’s production of Christopher Shinn’s Against traverses the landscape of American violence, from shootings in High Schools to the abuse of worker’s rights, to define what violence is and how it manifests. What the play fails to do resolve or even highlight the paradoxical nature behind these questions, and explore the doomed integrity of it’s hero.
Silicon Valley billionaire Luke, played scrupulously by Ben Wishaw, is visited by God who tells him to go where there is violence. Aided by his assistant Sheila, played by Amanda Hale, he conceives of an idea to visit communities affected by recent atrocities, to begin conversations, to understand guilt and grief and the causes of High School shootings. He quickly attracts a loyal following and indeed the messianic status Luke gains, in light of celebrity culture and reality tv, is very compelling. But as Luke’s billionaire background starts to enrage certain groups he retreats to his child-hood home. After an epiphany moment he emerges to make a speech at Equator, a huge goods distribution company (or Amazon). A man with a gun appears. A worker ousted out of his job by artificial intelligence technology, which Luke helped to develop. The man shoots and kills him but as the play fails to condemn Luke as a misguided narcissist or tragic martyr, his death fails to affect us.
Funnily enough, a play about eradicating violence from human nature suffers from a lack of dramatic conflict. There are too many scenes of Luke and his acolytes agreeing with each other. We don’t explore human nature and it’s attraction to violence, rather we explore Luke’s nature, which is squeaky clean and pedantic. The play starts enthusiastically, brimming with idealism but when it realises it can’t even come close to resolving these issues, it flounders and peters out, like a failed academic essay. When it does point to some resolution it seems insubstantial. For example the final scene, where two workers packing boxes at Equator begin a loving relationship, after the murder of Luke. Is it love that we need then? Is that it?
Thankfully the play is driven by it’s cast as well as Ultz’s design. Jon (Kevin Harvey) and Tracey (Adelle Leonce) give electrifying performances, played with depth and sympathy. But the play is ideologically flawed. As Luke encounters more and more people affected by violence, the terminology looses meaning. Does violence just mean bad? Or evil? This becomes a personal campaign of one man attempt to eradicate the world of evil. His vision of paradise can only be imagined as a clean, mechanical place of order and logic. Like Silicon Valley itself. A kind of dystopia. A place where nothing really happens.