Power of Sail

Inspired by events in 2017, Paul Grellong’s Power of Sail, directed by Dominic Dromgoole addresses white supremacy, political extremism and the double-edged sword of free speech.

Set in 2019, this show is a solid and well-designed time capsule. Paul Farnsworth designs a versatile set that can be converted into a professor’s office, a train station, homes, and a bar, cleverly using the same wooden panelling that gives a sense of history and legacy to these locations, and the people within them.  

Power of Sail effortlessly transports the audience back to the middle of the Trump administration. Against the backdrop of fervent student protests, the characters discuss the validity of upholding free speech and open dialogue with Neo-Nazis within a private university environment.

This play is neatly structured into six scenes, carrying enough content to expand the one-act play into a 6-episode mini-series. Through quick-witted and considered dialogue, anyone remotely aware or tuned in to the political climate of that era will easily be reminded of tensions running high within the United States, and growing political opposition around the globe.

Each scene offers enough intrigue to lead to the next, and anyone who enjoys a straight play will appreciate this experience. Things take a turn for the worse when a student gets shot—who has her blood on their hands? The gunman? Professor Nichols (Julian Ovenden) who invited the KKK’s Grandmaster onto campus? Or, the very concept of free speech itself that gave civilians the right to protest in the first place?

The plot unfolds at a steady pace, but the most exciting bits come just before the end. Baxter (Giles Terera), Nichols’ ex-student, and Lucas (Michael Benz), Nichols’ newly appointed fellow, come to blows as representations of deeply polarising viewpoints; a bleak yet accurate portrayal of present-day political discourse.

Staged five years later, after the world has lived through greater turmoil and collective trauma, the story may not be as hard-hitting. A present-day audience is most likely desensitised to any kind of political controversy, and hence the play’s most shocking moments get a lukewarm reception; perhaps a positive sign that such weighty, important issues are now processed on a less emotional and more rational wavelength.

It is therefore worth mentioning the abrupt ending. Grellong explains in his author’s note within the program booklet that this intentional choice is part of a Yiddish storytelling device. 

While this is a thoughtful tribute to his tradition, it may only be understood by someone who has read the program booklet or is already aware of this specific style. Otherwise, it comes across rather clunky or poorly concluded, leaving audiences rather puzzled by this uncommon storytelling device and feeling shortchanged by the entire experience. That being said, the theatre is meant to be a platform for curiosity, and ideally the audience will receive this experience with an open mind. 

Through this production, it is a sobering reminder that the winds of politics and societal development have blown in unfavourable directions since the idea for Power of Sail was first conceived almost a decade ago, and such conditions are unlikely to face change anytime soon. 

This show was reviewed on the 29th March 2024 at the Menier Chocolate Factory where it runs until the 12th May 2024.  Tickets available here: Buy Power of Sail tickets | Menier Chocolate Factory Official Box Office

Review written by Penelope Bao

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Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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