A fearless and stimulating concept is undermined by elementary writing decisions in Schenkkan’s Building The Wall, a political two-hander imagining a Trump-induced dystopia one year from now.
Making its European premiere at the Park Theatre, Schenkkan’s political two-hander, Building The Wall, imagines a dystopia one year from now. In response to terrorist ‘irradiation’ of Times Square, we learn how Trump has declared martial law – significantly curbing global press access to his next steps and curtailing civil liberties to an extent that only scarcely become conceivable as the 80-minutes unravel.
The ‘Cheeto-in-Chief’ is not the direct focus of this speculative fiction though. We briefly – chillingly – learn that he’s been ‘exiled to Palm Beach’, to characteristically repent impeachment and his crimes against humanity in the desolation of south-west Florida (of course). Instead, we’re 1800 miles away in El Paso County Jail – eavesdropping on a world-exclusive interview with inmate, and ‘disgraced-cog-in-Trump’s-regime’ everyman, Rick.
Jez Bond’s production occurs entirely inside a Yerma-like glass box, framing this unique conversation as an exhibit, case study and opportunity to learn the dismal details of a potential (if sensationalist) near-future from a ‘safe’ distance. Designer Sarah Beaton’s colour palette is dominated by blacks and whites: significant, as the race of interviewer Gloria (‘what do I call you? African-American?’ ‘…I prefer Black’) further politicises the nature of the conversation, as well as providing impetus for dramatic tension and elevated repentance.
A bold and stimulating concept and set design, for sure. Performances are also strong; both actors managing to bring more nuance to their characters than perhaps what exists in the text. But I quickly found Building A Wall’s ambition to be undermined by a series of fairly elementary writing decisions – and yearned for the show’s structure, pacing and rehashing of the trite ‘jailhouse interview’ device to be as compelling as its subject matter.
The shows begins with a significant amount of preamble, and after rather a lot of ambiguity, there’s a palpable audience restlessness for Rick to ‘get on with it’ and begin necessary exposition. This introductory section features a lot of background information about Gloria; she relays more about her experience, academic CV and character upfront than is perhaps believable (particularly when the receiver is a hostile prisoner). So much so that you assume it’s a deliberate character decision: that Schenkkan’s wants us to be thinking about whether Gloria is ‘really there to listen’ or has made up her mind already. But as the play progresses, you become unconvinced this was ever the intent and assume it was slotted upfront just because a more skilful way to weave Gloria’s backstory into proceedings couldn’t be located.
As Rick’s crimes begin to (finally) become clear, the writing remains somewhat uninspired: beats and crescendos (in anger, for instance) occur exactly where you anticipate they will, and relations between characters (mistrust at beginning, gradual opening up/dare I say ‘bonding’, moments of conflict and release) are hackneyed. Blocking also frequently seems clunky – both characters all but ignore their chairs, pacing back-and-forth instead from the word go. Whilst I understand incessant movement is a proxy for nervousness and anger (and, more importantly perhaps, necessary for thrust configurations and audience sightlines), it served to distract more than perhaps the benefits of thrust staging added. Perhaps an end-on configuration here would have actually reduced some of its forcedness.
The other writing-related ‘elephant in the room’, of course, is why Gloria constantly mines the prisoner for information she surely would know already. So much of Building The Wall‘s dialogue is necessarily expositional, and as shocking and grizzly as the details of Rick’s crimes are, not enough of Gloria’s questions actually focus on achieving other purposes. You understand Rick felt first disenfranchised and later like a replaceable cog in an unstoppable system (‘if I didn’t do it, someone else would have’) – but you assume those things from the production’s marketing blurb before even entering the theatre. Exploration of the ‘why’, and anything other than the ‘what’ and ‘how’, should’ve accounted for 50% of Building The Wall: and we’re perhaps only treated to 10% in its current form.