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31 May 2018

Building the Wall is a template for theatre in the age of Trump

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan peers into the near future. 

By Suchandrika Chakrabarti

Texas, 2019. An orange-jumpsuited man named Rick (Trevor White), and an African-American academic called Gloria (Angela Griffin) sit at a small table. The whole scene is encased in a glass box.

After a terror attack in Times Square, President Trump declared martial law. Illegal immigrants were rounded up for deportation, but never get out of the country.

Instead, they’re imprisoned, and a “clusterfuck of epic proportions” mounts up –  the basis of Rick’s huge, horrifying crime. 

Building the Wall, running at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, north London, until 2 June, has been staged all over the world, including in Mexico, Iran and Austria.

The playwright, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, designed it that way. He tells me: “I wanted to create a play that’s completely portable, that didn’t have a technically demanding set – a two-hander – so that it could be performed anywhere, for any kind of audience, on any kind of budget.”

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Schenkkan began writing the play in October 2016, when the idea of theatre in the age of Trump was still a non-starter.  “People didn’t quite believe Trump would get in,” he recalls. Yet the two central characters in the play, Gloria and Rick, are avatars for liberalism and Trump voters respectively. 

In the play, Rick has granted Gloria an interview to combat the “fake news” around his story. The audience hear the conversation through her dictaphone; these are the notes that she will later shape into a story.

For now, we get to see and hear the raw materials, the self-justification of a man who believed in Trump, and saw himself as just a tiny cog in a vast machine. As Rick says, he’s “just a guy, a regular guy in extraordinary circumstances trying to do the best I can with very limited resources.”

In 2016, the liberals still seemed to dominate the establishment. Now, though, the Ricks are in charge – and views that were previously outrageous are increasingly normalised, with the help of the press. Even last week, the Sunday Times described the extremist group Generation Identity, “the hipster fascists breathing new life into the British far right.”

“The arts are always anti-establishment, whatever that establishment is,” ​Schenkkan tells me. “I do think we’re in one of those periods right now.”

This was embodied by Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April. Journalists listened on in stunned silence while she skewered Trump’s White House.

A week later, Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ music video hit YouTube, while his alter ego Donald Glove presented Saturday Night Live. In contrast to Wolf, Glove has been lauded for his work. The stark, multi-layered video that merits multiple watches isn’t as overtly political as Wolf’s set. (Schenkkan calls it “masterful” and “wonderful”.)

Schenkkan’s own urge to create a response to what Trump represents in fact predated the US election by some time. In 2015, he read Into That Darkness, Gitta Sereny’s account of her interviews in 1971 with Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor death camps. Before his apprehension, Stangl had spent the decades since the war living in Brazil, and kept insisting to the journalist that he played only a small part in the Holocaust.

Schenkkan calls Sereny’s book, “an illuminating portal” of how individuals can fall down a slippery slope.

“There’s this inherent question of democracy: who, ultimately, is the arbiter of moral authority?” he says. “The individual, the citizen or the state? It’s a tension that never goes away.

“The book had an impact on me, and certainly on the play. I always make a point of acknowledging that work.”

Since 2016, of course, plenty of journalists, academics and politicians have made the connection between Nazism, Trump and the recent global rise of the far-right. What makes Schenkkan’s work more unusual is it looks into the near future. 

As Trevor White, the Canadian actor playing Rick in the London production, says: “It works in a Black Mirror kind of way, setting these often horrifying scenarios in a plausible near-future, where we can recognise ourselves.

“It was originally produced 18-months ago, so we’re getting closer to the dates mentioned.” Schenkkan too has cited the second episode of Charlie Brooker’s series as having similarities to the play. 

It’s not a leap to suggest that a Black Mirror fan is the same sort of person who would head to north London to watch this play. So is it just preaching to the choir?

Schenkkan insists he is interested in the undecided voters, who might have chosen Trump in 2016 but now have second thoughts.

“Any attempt to wrestle with these broad political issues, ultimately your success depends on your ability to humanise the characters involved, so that it isn’t didactic,” he says. 

“For my American audience, and for the London audience to, there is a genuine interest to understand the other side, these nascent nationalistic movements. What is it that motivates an individual to make that choice, which might actually be against their interest.

“The play is an attempt to create a world where we can explore those issues in a way that feels human, emotional and real.”

Angela Griffin, the former Coronation Street actor who plays Gloria, points out that venues like the Park Theatre make efforts to keep tickets affordable (the most expensive for the play is £26.50). 

“I would hope that someone who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre might recognise me on the poster and try something they wouldn’t normally,” she says. “It’s less intimidating when there’s someone familiar there.”

Schenkkan hopes that the play can cut through the endless pinging notifications of the relentless, Trump-on-Twitter-at-2am-and-he-can’t-block-you-anymore cycle.

“There’s the danger of being numbed emotionally by the 24-hour crisis news cycle,” he says. I think that’s intentional, in this White House, anyway – a policy of distraction.”

Building the Wall takes the eternal struggle between right and left and offers the chance to remake it in their own image to anyone who wants to stage it, amateur or professional.

In that way, it tries to become the opposite of social media or cable news. The play gives the audience 80 minutes away from the digital world, to reflect on how the way to hell is paved with not even good intentions, but a lack of intention at all.

As Schenkkan says: “We’re at one of those moments right now, where the moral imperative is really stark.

“We need to be aware that we are making a choice, even if we’re not making any choice at all. What we do really matters.”

Building the Wall is at the Park Theatre London until 2 June 2018. 

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