Review: Power of Sail, Menier Chocolate Factory

Power of Sail at the Menier Chocolate Factory adds to the noise around cancel culture without adding to the debate

“The answer to hate speech is more speech”

You just know that some plays are programmed because they tick a box that says ‘timely’. Paul Grellong’s Power of Sail feels like one such drama, ostensibly tackling the world of cancel culture and true freedom of speech but whilst it prepares the ground and gives every impression that it is going to light the touchpaper, nothing ignites here, despite a really rather good cast at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Julian Ovenden plays Charles Nichols, a fifth-generation Harvard scholar whose response to feeling a bit lost in the world is to invite a contentious white nationalist to a debate which he’s sure he’ll win. Campus politics being what they are, a firestorm of protest boils up that hardly anyone seems prepared for even as they stoke the fire. Is the price of untrammelled freedom of expression ever too much to bear?

This where the play leads us to thinking we’re going. But as things explode with the ramifications of the debate ripe for discussion, we cycle back in time to revisit events from different perspectives. The shift to thriller-ish territory proves dull in all honesty, a shifting of the terrain that allows Grellong to point and say ‘look, this is what the debate is’ rather than actually knuckling down to wrestle with the topic.

Giles Terera as Baxter, Charles’ former protégé and new academic star, and Katie Bernstein and Michael Benz as Maggie and Lucas, PhD students angling for the fellowship that Baxter succeeded in, all try their best in Dominic Dromgoole’s stolid production but can do little to energise the tedious speechifying and improbable plot machinations. A video backdrop of a social media Twitterstorm proves more effective.

Paul Farnsworth’s transformational set design is another high point, especially given the intervalless running time. But there’s a hollowness to this world that can’t be denied, a near-cartoonish version of academia that too often resorts to melodrama rather than discourse. Consequently, there’s more dramatic irony in the ultimate exhortation to check one’s privilege, especially as a cis white man.

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