“Power of Sail” at Menier Chocolate Factory

Jeremy Malies in south-east London
4 April 2024

“They wouldn’t have lasted a day in the Sixties!” For me, it’s the best line in Paul Grellong’s play (set in 2019) about fictitious events surrounding cancel culture, deplatforming, and student rioting at Harvard University. The play comes to London after a premiere in Greenville (South Carolina) in 2019 and a run in Los Angeles in 2022.


Julian Ovenden as Charles. Set by Paul Farnsworth.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


Charles, a faculty head played by Julian Ovenden, has what you might intuit would be normally good judgement swayed when he invites a white nationalist Holocaust denier (he is always off-stage) to share a debating chamber with others from across the political spectrum. Outcry over this prompts rioting, and a black student is killed by one of the nationalist’s followers. This is not during a melee but as a targeted act. The play asks whether free speech should be an end in itself, with the many articulate characters showing how lines can be crossed in terms of harassment, true threats, and intimidation. Grellong does not believe that free speech is sacred and in no way sees it as an end in itself.

As a campus drama in which academics worry about their tenure, this has similarities with David Mamet’s Oleanna. And Grellong’s plot (to quote Mamet’s aphorism) leaves us in no doubt about “Who wants what from whom?” Charles’s research area is Nazism, and the carrot for opening his debating hall to an extremist is promised sight of a previously unknown diary kept by a Rudolf Hess staffer prior to Hess’s self-piloted flight to Scotland in 1941.

The production smacks of laziness as well as occasional lack of stagecraft that underlines problems with an unwieldy script whose final two scenes (as they are acted out to us) have occurred before the actual plot culmination. This in itself is in no way tricksy or flamboyant but it demands our absolute attention. The set changes with stage hands dressed as students often seem barely worth the wait but designer Paul Farnsworth catches the exact tone of a downtown Boston Amtrak station.

Later, a brick comes through a study window and smashes an elaborate model yacht. The title of the play relates to the priority of a wind-driven vessel over a motorized one during manoeuvres, this much being spelled out. But its relevance to the plot is beyond me. Lighting by Oliver Fenwick and video by Leo Flint push at the sailing theme constantly, perhaps suggesting that Ovenden’s character would rather be out on the nearby Charles River than fighting a culture war. In other scenes, Flint’s video projection is mannered and unsubtle, with whole paragraphs of newspaper articles being flashed onto the backdrop when a few mocked-up pages would have given real flavour of the events.


Tanya Franks as Dean Katz.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


What I like about Grellong’s writing is that he tests his own attitudes and this trait gives the piece its muscle. Michael Benz plays graduate student Lucas. I’m obviously on safe ground to occasionally laugh at Lucas if only for his research topic of beet farming in seventeenth-century Sweden. But I was the only person in the theatre to laugh with him when he derided the research of fellow PhD student Maggie played by Katie Bernstein (The Tattooist of Auschwitz on Sky Atlantic) who is writing about bisexual suffragettes running a boarding house in Saratoga Springs!

The playwright also encourages me (as I should) to defend Lucas against any belittling because of immutable characteristics that make him white, male, cisgender, and heterosexual. He should be in no way discriminated against in terms of job preferment but clearly has been. In the best scene of the play, he spars with Baxter (Giles Terera) and misses the point that his black faculty colleague is enjoying success on talk shows and commanding fees as a speaker not as a result of ethnicity but through quick wits, a telegenic manner, and general charisma. Terera, definitely one of the actors of the moment, oozes the same Zen calm he has shown recently in Clyde’s and in the closing moments of Othello.

A strong scene (there is much double-crossing in the plot which needs to be left under wraps) sees Bernstein excel when Maggie berates the faculty dean played by Tanya Franks for not speaking out enough against Holocaust denial. We learn that Maggie lost relatives at Treblinka. But elsewhere, characters are often mouthpieces for shades of political opinion and I had no sense of being inside their heads.

The play is described in publicity blurb as a moral thriller. Hmm! Ovenden is weighed down by a leaden monologue about the Hess document in which he surely lost more audience members than just me, and I wondered that director Dominic Dromgoole could not have trimmed the lines or better propelled Ovenden through them. Similarly, while not helped by another flabby unidiomatic speech in which she must detail her character’s reading habits while performing a simple interview as an FBI officer, Georgia Landers fares badly. Impressive as the inflexible Isabella in Measure for Measure, she could benefit by being a more credible listener and she leaves herself nowhere to go after the first set of questions here.

Rarely have I had to remind myself so often about the dangers of ascribing the sentiments of characters to the playwright themselves. There are sequences (notably as the Harvard Yard campus space is being overrun) when slogans are hurled at us. “Whiteness is only absence.” “White culture is the absence of culture.” There is clearer territory when all of us across the Overton window of discourse and beyond are told that we are attention whores which, as a critic, I can hardly argue with. And whatever Grellong’s politics or those of characters he hopes to skewer, it’s good to see him calling out the kind of people who will go on a rally with one eye on their smartphone to see what impact their radicalism is having on Instagram follower numbers.

There is lots of good sense here, much of it expressed powerfully. Grellong derides free speech absolutists but wants them to be hoisted with their own petard. “The answer to hate speech is more speech,” says Charles, while Baxter describes the process in which extremists often deflate themselves when under the media spotlight as a “disinfectant”. Power of Sail is at times a tad clunky and sermonic. And yet, only a month after former British prime minister Liz Truss shared a platform with Steve Bannon during a roundtable in Maryland at which Nazi salutes were exchanged openly, I’m rather glad the play is being staged.