Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Animal or vegetable?

Plus: why has the National Theatre decided to employ a man who is either a fantasist or a fascist?

Against by Christopher Shinn sets out to unlock the secrets of America’s spiritual malaise. Two main settings represent the wealthy and the dispossessed. At a university campus, an inquisitive Jesus-freak named Luke interrogates people about their experiences of violence. At an online retailer, oppressed wage slaves toil for hours and mate fleetingly during their tea breaks. Shinn’s characters also fall into two categories. The rich are eloquent, idealistic and disingenuous. The poor are earthy, impulsive and honest. The play is built around a series of formalised conversations, recorded interviews, writing tutorials, a Q&A session at a town hall, a stilted reunion between two old school-friends, and so on.

In ritualised dialogues like these, the characters must subordinate their real selves to the social conventions rather than expressing their true natures. And that, of course, is the opposite of a proper drama where transgression, jeopardy, unpredictability and impropriety are the key elements. So Shinn has accidentally written a script where the dramatic potential has been sucked out in advance. At the climax, a crazed gunman shows up at a warehouse but nearly all the characters avoid him by watching him over the internet. The characters, again, are being moved away from the source of conflict when they ought to be thrust towards it. Another blunder. Odder still, Shinn teaches playwriting at the New School. Perhaps he needs a refresher course.

But the real difficulty here is the protagonist, Luke. It’s hard to imagine a character farther removed from the life of the ordinary play-goer. Luke is a famous young tech billionaire with a lot of time on his hands, who claims that God has commanded him to ‘go where there’s violence’. So he sets out to explore the causes of a recent massacre and a rape epidemic.

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