Power of Sail – A Moral Thriller ★★★★ Menier Chocolate Factory | Mar 20 - May 12, 2024

The bon mot that academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small has various attributions, and its history of apparently being "borrowed" is not without some irony. Set in the context of a debate about free speech, Paul Grellong has written a piece that is less a moral thriller and more of a satire. It is really about the pettiness and lack of principle involved in navigating one's way through the choppy seas of academia. The play doesn't really do much to advance the debate about finding the line between hate speech and free speech, but it is a clinical dissection of the mendacity and petty ambition that infects the environment of those who are supposedly charged with exploring and refining that important distinction. Apparently under the rubric of free speech, Harvard professor Charles Nichols (Julian Ovenden) has invited a well-known white supremacist to participate in a panel at the university. The students are outraged and the dean is worried about the publicity. Two graduate students who are beholden to Nichols have different reactions when he is invited to meet with the speaker off campus, and their motives and behaviour are eventually exposed as being as questionable as those of their educator. Michael Benz and Katie Bernstein as the students both put in completely convincing performances and their covert convictions nicely contrast to Ovenden's masterful portrayal of their morally bankrupt mentor. Tanya Franks is beautifully restrained as the buttoned-down, bureaucratic dean, and kudos also to Paul Farnsworth for a meticulous and neatly multipurpose set. Director Dominic Dromgoole does an excellent job of ensuring that the rather static work doesn't just turn into a pedantic talkfest. Ultimately, Grellong's indictment of the academic world is intriguing and enjoyably vicious, but the big question isn't really addressed. We are simply left without much faith in those intellectuals who might be guiding the ship of state as it grapples with a very complex issue whose stakes are not small.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Manuel Harlan

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