Against: is Ben Whishaw's Luke a Holy Fool, or just another Silicon Valley narcissist?

Playwright Christopher Shinn portrays America as a sick society which doesn’t even know it.

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There are two problems with Against: the beginning and the end. The first scene is a strangely static encounter between Ben Whishaw’s Luke – a tech billionaire – and his ghostwriter and would-be love interest Sheila. God has spoken to him, he tells her, and ordered him to “go where there’s violence”. Sheila is up for following him (understandably: he is a billionaire with the face of Ben Whishaw) but advises him not to tell anyone about the God stuff. Silicon Valley is full of messiahs, but finds true faith incredibly embarrassing.

After this tablet of exposition is brought down from the theatrical mount, we get a picaresque narrative of huge breadth, conducted against a minimalist set. Luke meets the parents of a school shooter, visits a campus riven by rape accusations, and is accosted by the father of a child abuse victim and the mother of a son undergoing chemotherapy.

The first draft of the play was submitted in 2015, but it presciently echoes Mark Zuckerberg’s current year-long challenge of visiting all the US states, on what might be called his “I AM A HUMAN” tour. (Typical resulting post: the Facebook founder stares earnestly at some nonplussed cows while fretting about the food chain.)

Luke’s motives are ambiguous: is he a Holy Fool with good intentions, or just another Silicon Valley narcissist who views the other seven billion of us as the backdrop to his journey of personal development? Whishaw’s compelling, understated performance tips us towards the former, but the other characters are less convinced. One asks him: aren’t your billions a form of violence, too?

It’s long been a mystery to the theatre world why Christopher Shinn, a US writer who focuses on contemporary America, finds it easier to get his plays produced in Britain. The subject matter of Against suggests an answer. Although Shinn touches on horrors such as the poor conditions of factory workers – stuff any self-respecting left-winger can tut over – his greatest venom is reserved for the sterile, insular world of performative social liberalism divorced from class politics. In this telling, there are two Americas: a quiet, desperate one which works in deteriorating conditions, and a better-educated, wealthier one which has abdicated responsibility for changing society in favour of policing its own codes of behaviour with a zeal which would make the Stasi proud. (Theatre audiences, inevitably, tend towards the latter group.)

Shinn’s previous play, Teddy Ferrara, was staged at the Donmar in 2015. It told the story of a student suicide at a right-on liberal university campus, suggesting that no amount of ostentatious political correctness can stop people being mean and small to each other. That theme recurs here in one of the best threads of the play. On campus, the dean expresses concern to Luke that he has spoken to students who have sold sex for his project about violence, and “the concern is that there are no narratives that offer a more positive view of sex work”. Luke is baffled: “Why would there be?… When I toured weapons manufacturers we spoke to people who’d lost loved ones to gun violence, or overseas in wars – not to people who use guns safely, for recreation.”

The dispute culminates in a scene where one of the university’s professors (revealed as a former sex worker himself, and played superbly by Kevin Harvey) insists that Luke tells an audience in detail about his masturbatory habits. It’s a tactic clearly designed to humiliate, and no matter how many times Luke tries to make the point that his interest is in violence and exploitation, all his interlocutor wants to hear is that he “support[s] sex work”. Denied this gotcha, the professor flounces out. Later, the same professor berates a student whose story about polyamory fails to champion the practice as an antidote to patriarchy. Being “sex negative” is “very puritanical and right-wing, honestly”. This is the dark side of liberalism, where freedom to subvert social norms has curdled into a suspicion of those who don’t.

It’s hard to see what Luke learns from his journey – suggesting that, for all his winsome naivety, the harsher interpretation was the true one. His money, he claims, could only make a pinprick in the problem of violence: the usual excuse for Silicon Valley types who fund a few philanthropic projects while keeping their company’s tax arrangements as efficient as possible. In Shinn’s America, the state is almost completely absent. It doesn’t look after workers’ interests, provide them with healthcare, or try to keep them safe from mass shootings or sexual violence, and even a guy smart enough to make billions from rockets can’t see that’s a fundamental problem. America is sick and doesn’t even know it.

Ian Rickson’s pacy direction ensures that even the talkiest scenes don’t drag, but having tossed all these balls into the air, neither he nor Shinn seem quite able to catch them again. After introducing a dozen interesting characters, the climax rests on the actions of one we have never met before. It makes for a disappointing ending to a play of huge scope and ambition.

“Against” is at the Almeida Theatre, London N1, until 30 September

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia