The Park Theatre is hosting the UK premiere of the American play Building The Wall this month. Written by Robert Schenkkan a month before the presidential elections of 2016, the two-hander is set in a dystopian future of November 2019. Trump has been impeached. Rick is in prison awaiting sentence for the crime of the century. Sociologist turned historian Gloria gets one hour with him. We have an hour to understand.
The play is staged within an almost soundproof glass box: the room in which Gloria interviews Rick. A bare table, a water tank, a blinded window – “for security”. The actors wear invisible microphones: we can hear them, but they can’t hear us. An effective way to convey the sense of isolation and secrecy.
There is tension from the start. The African-American Gloria is trying to elicit the unedited truth from Rick, but struggles to hide her repulsion and remain professional at times. Rick feels like he has been caught up in the system, in the regime, and he doesn’t have much of a choice. As the story of his crime unfolds, and Gloria and Rick engage in discussions about ethics and morals, questions of free will and responsibility take centre stage.
Angela Griffin and Trevor White both give captivating performances. With the exception of a few moments, their characters are believable, and they do a good job of holding the audience’s attention throughout their 80-minute dialogue in a bare and confined setting. A lot of this is thanks to Schenkkan’s sharp script. He keeps us guessing about the nature of the events that have unfolded until late in the play, and when the atrocities are revealed, a palpable shudder rolls through the audience. Despite all this, however, Schenkkan still manages to elicit a certain level of empathy for Rick, an ordinary yet frustrated white working class American, who somehow ended up as a cog in the regime.
The scariest thing about this provocative piece, perhaps, is how much this dystopian society resembles ours. It is ours: this is an America in which Trump’s racist and polarising rhetoric on immigration and security have gone just a few steps further. Schenkkan presents us with a (black) mirror, showing the horrifying results of state-level decisions combined with personal dilemmas, and asking the question: who is responsible? The president? The government officials? Rick? Or the voters? And how unlikely are these events to happen? More unlikely than Trump becoming president? An important, thought-provoking and very timely political crime thriller.
Building The Wall is playing at the Park Theatre until 2 June
Photo: Park Theatre