A small shrine of flowers, candles, soft animals and religious memorabilia, a sight most usually attributed to the aftermath of acts of terrorism or massacres, lay at the bottom of the stage. Serving as a visceral reminder of the extended, emotional damage of acts of violence, the stage design fitted in well with the main thread which linked the many disparate parts of Against together: violence in humanity, in all of its many guises. Beginning with an eerie deconstruction of crime scene by forensic workers, the play quickly turned to a more in-depth discussion of how violence, sometimes latently, manifests itself in the human condition.
Against revolves around a Silicon Valley billionaire, Luke (Ben Whishaw) who explains at the start of the play to his bemused friend Sheila (Amanda Hale) how he has received a quite literal calling from God to ‘go where there is violence and go inside.’ His conviction in the veracity of this calling has led him to abandon his technological work and instead take the philanthropic path of opening a dialogue about violence by visiting sites where such events have publicly occurred. Whishaw is convincing as a wunderkind with a cause; in spotless white trainers and a navy polo shirt, speaking enigmatically about his aims, he is almost uncomfortably reminiscent of other tech billionaires who align themselves with charitable goals. I say uncomfortable because the element of religion made him an uneasy character to grasp: religious fervour such as his, as we discover during the course of the play, leads to him becoming an almost messiah-like figure, and so he is difficult to empathise with and therefore difficult to like, as much as I felt like I should have.
Against delves into how violence, sometimes latently, manifests itself in the human condition
Although Against is longer than most plays, totalling three hours, it didn’t feel turgid. The action is spans across the different places Luke visits; actors taking on three or sometimes four characters. The frequent changes proved interesting to the overall feel of the production: on one hand I felt an inability to really connect with any of the characters, and yet for me it worked. Using the same actor to explore multiple characters affected by violence worked as an alienation technique. Complemented by the stripped-back set, it forced the audience to consider the idea of violence itself. Can violence ever be eradicated? Is violence intrinsic to what it means to be human? The complexities of the latter is explored through moving past the more ‘obvious’ demonstrations of violence to other, more subtle forms: in one scene a sex worker questions Luke as to whether the societal rejection they face is violence, in another scene, a former student of a high school in which a massacre occured confesses to Luke that he rejected the friendship of the gunman when they were children. Luke finds that even he isn't free from blame when he is reminded by an old school sweetheart that he cheated on her, breaking her heart. Suddenly Luke’s calling to ‘go where there is violence’ doesn’t seem so clear.
Against is not an easy watch: the characters are sometimes fleeting and usually difficult to connect with, and the subject matter is heavy. And yet I found it extremely effective in posing a difficult question in a thought-provoking way. Filing out of the theatre past the shrine of flowers and bears that has become all too familiar, the question of violence in society seems more pressing now more than ever.
4 out of 5 stars Against is on at the Almeida Theatre until 30th September Tickets from £10