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Review: Power of Sail (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Review by Sam Waite




Every so often we see criticisms of censorship, or the refusal to allow free speech – often, “free speech” in these contexts is confused for a lack of consequence for or reaction to what is being said. With this being such a contentious, frequently-raised topic of debate, Paul Grellong’s Power of Sail sounds, on paper, like an opportunity to spark lively debate and explore how one might offer a platform to those whose views they publicly stand against. In its European premiere at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, however, the opportunity is often squandered.


Told over the course of three days, Power of Sail primarily follows Harvard professor Charles “Charlie” Nichols, and the fallout when a list of speakers for his annual symposium is leaked. Working within the topic of extremism, Nichols has invited a notable white nationalist to speak, much to the chagrin of many – particularly Dean Amy Katz and PhD student Maggie Rosen, both Jewish women. More neutral on the matter is Lucas, seemingly the top choice for Nichols’ upcoming fellowship position, while former student Baxter Forrest, now an esteemed historian and speaker in his own right, clearly disagrees with the invitation but seems content to stay out of the discussion for the moment.

Structurally, the play becomes confusing in its second half. Presented without an interval, the midway point is punctuated by a tragic occurrence resulting from Charles’ choice to dine at the compound of his soon-to-be guest speaker, and the inevitable protesting when this engagement is discovered by the student body. Where this first half covers around 26 hours, the remainder of the play is largely composed of two lengthy scenes showing us what occurred in the background of Charles’ fateful dinner date. Not well indicated, this becomes particularly confusing until dialogue alluding to scenes we’ve already witnessed clarifies that time has moved backwards.


Where these extended flashbacks become tedious is that many of the gaps filled in – who leaked the list, how were Charles and Amy’s unsavoury emails deleted – didn’t feel like they needed to be filled. Indeed, while finding out who leaked the list provided a full circle moment, it was hard to ignore the fact that the invitee would have sparked outrage eventually anyway – is the source of this leak all that important when all they did was hurry along an inevitable sequence of events? This is the prime example of a strange hand-holding quality to Grellong’s script, which offers up the idea of complex discussion but tends to over-explain events and ideals, leaving no ambiguity to character motivations or allowing for any lingering questions. The play is billed as “a moral thriller”, but seems unwilling to veer into any real twists or offer any genuine tension.

As Charles, Julian Ovenden plays nicely into his role as a self-proclaimed “one of the good ones” liberal with some clear, more conservative thoughts beneath the veneer. As the professor goes on overlong rants about the importance of being seen to offer free speech indiscriminately, and how the best way to bring down those he is against might just be to dissect their views on a public stage, Ovenden is utterly convincing as someone who believes the near-nonsense his arguments veer towards. In his hands, Charles Nichols is a man out for his own gain who desperately wants to be seen as an ally to others, more so than he wants to be an ally to them – indeed, I found myself frequently rolling my eyes as his attempts to justify his choices, then realising just how impressively Ovenden had convinced me they were his.


The bulk of the seven-person cast unfortunately fall victim to the confused plotting, all having moments of greatness but otherwise being tasked with dishing out the sometimes-unnecessary exposition. Katie Bernstein and Michael Benz, as PhD students and fellowship hopefuls Maggie and Lucas, are more sounding boards for Nichols than characters in their own right until the second half, when each brings manipulative and – in Benz’s case – sinister motivations to the surface. Tragically underused is Detective Quinn Harris, played by Georgia Landers, who gives a probing, thoughtful performance in her one scene as the FBI agent – here is a woman playing an extended game of chess, and there’s a great joy in seeing her corner her opponent’s king.

The dialogue, much of it either expository or hinting at a debate that rarely amounts to anything, isn’t badly written or anything less than authentic to how these types of overeducated, ego-inflated characters would speak… but much like I could imagine his lectures to, it all grows very tiresome as the same debate seems to be opened loosely up over and over, without any real payoff or any genuine curiosity raised in the audience’s minds. It’s unfortunate that the clearly talented cast’s performances tend to fall flat because of this, their skills needed to move the continuous loop of conversation along rather than to give real insight into the inner workings of their own brains. Later this is somewhat rectified, but by that point the damage is done and a few moments of great acting can’t make up for over an hour of serving merely as sounding boards or as limp, ineffective obstacles to the verbal bulldozer that is Professor Charles Nichols.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, following recent turns in Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s and Pearl Cleage’s Blues For An Alabama Sky, Giles Terera proves to be the standout of this ensemble, and his performances is the least impacted. As the sole black man whose opinion on the white nationalist’s visit is even acknowledged, Terera brilliantly allows a false disinterest to coat his first appearance, before unleashing a buried rage at a pivotal scene at the show’s midpoint – in fact, the best of Grellong’s script even without the stellar actor at its centre. He lets a genuine disgust into his tone at the implication that Charles “cleaned [him] up” or that any favours were done that he hadn’t earned – this comes back around nicely in the final scene, where his appearance is punctuated by a verbal sparring match with a character who implies that race may have made securing Professor Nichols’ fellowship some years before a much easier endeavour. Once again, Mr Terera proves himself to be one of London’s brightest and most adaptable stars.

Director Dominic Dromgoole obviously understands these characters, particularly Charles and Baxter. Indeed, the pompousness he has drawn out of Ovenden and the effortless charm he’s pulled from Terera are commendable, and go a great way towards our understanding how these characters have kept their mutually beneficial relationship going for so long. Dromgoole also has a good sense of body language, the student-teacher dynamics between Nichols and his students being crystal clear even without dialogue, with the younger actors staying focused on Ovenden as he dominates whatever space Paul Farnsworth’s malleable, ever-changing set represents at the time. Farnsworth’s design allows stagehands to rotate and rearrange backdrops and furniture to create whatever new space is required – so present are these stagehands that they are a well-earned addition to the bows once the show comes to an end.


Transitions where the set is rearranged are somewhat disguised by a soundscape devised by Ella Wahlstrom, who brings in a roaring cacophony of voices crying out against the upcoming symposium. Combined with Leo Flint’s visual component, the social media posts and articles written by naysayers covering the darkened set, it creates a strong impact, though doesn’t quite detract from how awkwardly visible the scene changes are. Admittedly, this is a necessary evil, the stage only allowing for so much coverage, but I did wish some sort of covering or scrim had been employed to distract just that bit more.

Power of Sail is named for a maritime law, where a vessel with its own motor must give way to one guided by the wind and the tides alone. In the moment this is discussed, the metaphor is crystal clear, but like Nichols’ own fixation on boating and maritime laws it ultimately amounts to less than one would think. Yes, the white man at the centre of this debate fails to stand aside and allow the voices of those his choices are harming be truly heard, or even fully acknowledged, but any comeuppance from his actions feels hollow, and the debate promised by the show’s opening moments suggests grey areas that the black and white script is unprepared (or perhaps disinterested) is exploring.


Power of Sail plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until May 12th



Photos by Manuel Harlan


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