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Review: Building the Wall (Park Theatre)

Jez Bond directs the UK premiere of Robert Schenkkan's Trump-related piece

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Trevor White and Angela Griffin in Building the Wall
© Mark Douet

USA. 2019. The country is feeling the effects of President Donald Trump's isolationist policies. Rick, a 40-something man incarcerated in Texas, has committed an unspeakable crime. He grants one interview from his prison cell to African American historian Gloria, as a way to atone for his sins and cut through all the supposed 'fake news' floating around the story. We, as an audience, don't know what Rick's done. But it sounds faintly, creepingly, catastrophic.

Robert Schenkkan's play, interestingly written on the eve of the 2016 US election and coming to the UK for the first time in this new production at the Park Theatre, is intensely watchable. Set in an 'alternate reality' and reflecting on the nature of authoritarian governmental policies and their potential impacts in the US, there's a vague resemblance to The Man In The High Castle, or more in this case, The Man with the Big Border Wall.

The issues brought up in the single, square room are tantalising, and at first, Schenkkan weaves them deftly into a single, uninterrupted scene. Ramifications of Trump's election promises, the privatisation of prisons and the tangible impacts of hostility towards immigration are all grappled with as the war of words between Rick (Trevor White) and Gloria (Angela Griffin) continues. White, who is a prowling, haunted presence, shuffling with an awkward gait, has perhaps more to do in the piece as the perpetrator of the crime, a man both terrified to talk but desperate to confess. Griffin, who is largely given the unfortunate task of having to exposit and unravel the story, has a more fruitful first half where her own motivations for conducting the interview are questioned and the legacy of the election ("the most expensive election in history") are put under the microscope.

The sad part is that, given such a fascinating premise, Schenkkan plays his hand too heavily. When the revelation of Rick's crime comes, and it is a big one (though would be unfair to spoil), it upends the whole debate occurring during the production. A meditation on persecution transforms in a split-second into an examination of a single atrocity (and one I wouldn't want to spoil). It's an eye-widening shocker of a beat that instantly overshadows the subtle commentary that comes before, and it feels as though, in rushing to reach his end message, Schenkkan has skipped a few steps along the way.

Trevor White and Angela Griffin in Building the Wall
© Mark Douet

Jez Bond's direction is lean, punchy and never relents – his performers orbit each other, confessing, hiding and antagonising. The experience is aided by designer Sarah Beaton's vast glass structure, housing the actors in some great transparent cage. Reminiscent, perhaps, of the Young Vic's production of Yerma, the design makes the performance space feel sterile and unnervingly blank (the only stabs of colour from the jarring orange of White's prison jumpsuit). It's as if we're staring inside some great petri-dish, and suits the troubling themes of Schenkkan's text perfectly.

At the end of the day, this is less a play about Trump and more a reflection on the interaction between the state and the individual, the private and public spheres, and the real extent to which people, relatable, empathetic people can go when under duress. The shocks may dispel belief, but it all amounts to a strong premiere up at the Park.