Against, theatre review: Artificially intelligent

Henry Hitchings
Meeting of minds: Ben Whishaw as Luke and Emma D’Arcy as Anna: Johan Persson

The leaders of technology companies wield a disquieting power to shape our future. Christopher Shinn’s ambitious new play examines the messianic tendencies of Silicon Valley plutocrats through Luke, a billionaire whose innovations have changed the landscape of artificial intelligence. He’s also — get this — an expert in rocket science. But lately he has been receiving messages from God, and he now believes it’s his duty to ‘go where there’s violence’.

First he visits the parents of a schoolboy who massacred his classmates. Then he heads to a university that’s facing a ‘crisis of sexual assault’. A trip to a prison introduces him to the father of a child abused by his basketball coach. As he meets a succession of people who’ve been rendered inarticulate by trauma, he’s all the while missing out on a vital connection of his own with colleague Sheila (Amanda Hale).

In the hands of Ben Whishaw, Luke is a Christ-like figure, inspiring both devotion and disgust. It’s a finely measured performance, and Whishaw is at his best when saying nothing — he imparts a serene gravity to the act of listening. Yet the gospel according to Luke is earnest and simplistic. ‘I think any time we treat anyone with violence we do damage to our souls,’ he says, as if arriving at a unique insight. Perhaps we’re meant to find him ludicrously unworldly rather than enlightened.

Although Ian Rickson’s production is well-acted, it’s tonally uncertain, and Shinn’s intentions aren’t easy to decipher. Satirical scenes at the expense of campus politics and creative writing courses feel as if they’ve been squeezed into the play, and more nuanced ideas about ‘radical modes of intimacy’ and the way corporate cynicism can masquerade as wisdom are underdeveloped.

The result is a disjointed piece that keeps distracting itself by flirting unpersuasively with topical issues. Maybe that’s Shinn’s point — the fracturing of public discourse makes it impossible to solve society’s problems. But while it promises to grapple with big ideas about isolation and the corrupt nature of modern culture, Against lacks drive and focus.