Ben Whishaw delivers a winning performance in this flawed but captivating production that raises pertinent questions about violence, fame and moral culpability.
Silicon Valley tech billionaire Luke has had a vision. Having been a lifelong sceptic, he is struck suddenly by a visceral religious awakening. God has spoken, and he spake the words: ‘Go where there’s violence’.
Against opens with Luke confessing this vision to his journalist friend, Sheila. Though taken aback, Sheila (played with effortless grace by Amanda Hale) accepts his story remarkably patiently- her budding crush no doubt rose-tinting his far-fetched tale. Together, they interpret the message to mean it is Luke’s duty to change the culture that enables and perpetrates violence, and head to the site of a high school shooting in the first stop of their tour of US tragedies. Luke’s charisma (and abundant wealth) soon ensures his celebrity status and a cult following convinced he is sent from God to put the world to rights.
Is his attack of conscience genuine, or is he a clever egoist with a messiah complex? Ben Whishaw’s disarming, puppy-dog-eyed portrayal could certainly convince us of the former; he is unwaveringly endearing, evoking the over-earnest American perfectly. Yet his true motivation remains unclear; though he alludes frequently to some sort of inner demon that propels his quest for an enlightened world, this idea dwindles inconsequentially- his most devious antic is revealed to be cheating on his eighth-grade girlfriend. And while he professes to care only about his cause, the eradication of violence, he is exceedingly conscious of the public’s perception of him.
At almost three hours long, this is certainly a lengthy production. Yet as someone who is usually partial to the short-and-snappy, I was surprised to find myself riveted from start to finish. Sure, on reflection certain scenes seem superfluous and under-developed; writer Christopher Shinn delves into a warren of sub-plots, only some of which work. Luke’s encounter with two homeless men in the second act, for example, serves little purpose. It could be argued that by addressing so many facets of violence, he fails to explore any one in real depth.
However, the inclusion of so many examples of violence make an altogether different point about our unfair expectations of those who try to take a moral stand. In one of the most interesting scenes, Luke is staging a peaceful protest outside a prison against an inmate’s cruel treatment. He is then accosted by a man he has never met who is incensed that Luke would stand up for a prisoner, someone who has committed an act of violence, and won’t instantly visit his son, a victim. No matter how hard he rails against one form of violence, omitting its myriad other forms is perceived as a violent act in itself.
Without exception, the entire cast are on top form. Kevin Harvey delivers two notably fantastic character performances as both an aggressively progressive university professor and Luke’s professional rival at tech giant Equator, a toe-curlingly smarmy Silicon Valley type whose new tech innovation, “relational purchasing”, raises one of the biggest laughs of the evening. As the professor, Harvey satirises academia by determining that his polyamorous gender-neutral student’s autobiographical novel latently propounds hetero-normative values. Said student, a shy creative struggling to express herself, was also depicted in an exceedingly likeable and sensitive manner by Emma D’Arcy.
Flawed but immensely enjoyable, Against is thought-provoking and well-executed.
Against is playing at the Almeida Theatre until September 30.
Photo: Johan Persson