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Building the Wall
By Robert Schenkkan
Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Marilynne Robinson recently said that the reason her novels haven't contemporary settings is because "the present is a slippery beast"; received notions risk becoming accepted truths while the passage of time often proves them wrong.
Schenkkan's play is hot off the presses, dealing with an imaginary speculation of what might happen if the Trump administration goes bad (leaving aside those who consider it already has). The trouble is in this dystopian speculation we go from Trump to Death Camps in 90 minutes and in the end it is over-earnest and politically naïve. It is redeemed by a perfectly judged naturalistic staging and two gripping central performances.
Spoiler alert here. The central premise is that Trump's administration has proceeded with 'building the wall', at least metaphorically, and in the aftermath of a major terrorist incident in Times Square has rounded up all undocumented immigrants. They're imprisoned in remote max security prison facilities, such as one in El Paso, awaiting deportation. The snag is that the home countries refuse to accept them. The numbers then start to pile up, they requisition football stadia (echoes of Chile), and it quickly degenerates into a sanitation crisis (think of the aftermath of 'Katrina') which becomes a humanitarian crisis, for which some sort of Final Solution is needed.
What Schenkkan excels at is charting how an ordinary loyal citizen can become a cog in a regime and how easy it is, when put under unbearable pressure, for the inconceivable to become the inevitable. It's the 'banality of evil' argument.
Jez Bond's direction is crisp and lucid and Sarah Beaton's excellent prison room setting, where the two protagonists are encased in a soundproofed glass cell, completes the sense of claustrophobia. We only hear them when their mics are activated and they in turn are being observed through a two way mirror in this world of total surveillance.
Rick (Trevor White), clad in an orange prison jumpsuit a la Guantanamo, is meeting with Gloria (Angela Griffin), an African-American historian who has been granted his only interview prior to his execution. She has the scoop of the year as his is the Crime of the Century - he was the head of the notorious facility.
In an utterly compelling performance White makes us empathise with Rick, an ex-serviceman from the wrong side of the tracks. He has clawed his way up in the ruthless private prison game and is trying to do the right thing. Schenkkan's skill is in making the case for how people like Joe see Trump as the savour of their class. Griffin's Gloria is the polar opposite, the embodiment of the Obama-ite liberal. It's a warm engaging performance but would a professional academic really get into emotional political debates with a mass killer on death row?
The piece plays to its liberal audience when what's needed from drama is more distance and a cooler head. It also makes a fatal mistake about Trump. He's not focussed or consistent enough to be evil. What might have made a better scenario is if rather than this being top-down evil it concerned a prison facility which goes unilateral. Who then would take the responsibility?