Is this a dystopian drama or is it the natural conclusion to Trumpism? That was the main question I was left with on leaving Building the Wall. When does it become impossible for a drama to overdramatise the effects of a presidency as ridiculous and audacious as this one?
This powerful play is slow to start and takes time both to fully reveal its premise and to reach its climax. It is – however – breath taking when it gets there.
Set in 2019, there has been an attack on Times Square which led to President Trump imposing Martial Law to lock up and deport immigrants on a mass scale. Gloria (Angela Griffin) is an African American historian who is seeking to understand recent events through the case of Rick (Trevor White), who is incarcerated and awaiting trial for his role in the events that followed that period.
As Rick reveals the truth behind the corporate and industrial scale crimes he was a part of, we see parallels to history that are becoming commonplace in our discussion of Trump. As always when discussing martial law, immigration controls and divided countries, Nazi allegories are sometimes too easy to reach for. Here we also saw some parallels with the fascist governments – often imposed and supported by the US – in South America.
It is done skilfully here. Rick is not portrayed completely as a monster, but a man caught up in a system, behaving as monstrously as a cog in a machine that is crushing you to death. He is the good Nazi, just doing his job and getting by.
The staging is extremely dramatic with Rick on full view from the very opening of the play. The whole thing takes place in a soundproof box that is completely insulated. This has the dual effect of both making it clear that this is a prison cell and thus monitored at all times, but also of keeping the action slightly separate from the audience. We heard everything through speakers which, for me, removed an element of the humanity from the play.
There were a few plot holes that wouldn’t quite leave me alone. Politically, it was not explained how, in under two years, the US went from the imposition of martial law to the impeachment of Trump and the kind of prosecutions that would normally take years to achieve. Why didn’t Gloria know most of the details of what Rick is accused of if he’s standing trial? If she doesn’t, that would be a decision of those who have incarcerated him, so why is she being allowed in to interrogate him?
Overall though, if you can let these details wash over you, this is a commanding drama. Well-acted and beautifully staged to allow you to see the actors at all times (even the use of reflective glass seems to have been properly thought through to ensure this). It asks vital questions of where our current trajectory is leading us – both here and the US as the rhetoric on immigration continues to heat up.
It will be important for dramatists like the author Robert Schenkkan to keep asking the questions raised in Building the Wall. The role of art is not simply in holding a mirror up to a distorted society, but in ensuring those distortions never become normalised.
Building the Wall is on until 2 June https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/building-the-wall