The Narcissist review – a darkly honest dissection of post-Trump politics | Theatre

After working on Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, Jim is summoned by a female senator contemplating a future White House run, intrigued that he was the only person to warn the 2016 Democratic candidate of her inevitable defeat.

In an America convulsed by Trump’s victory, the contender wants to know what the consultant understood. His argument – powerfully stated and fascinatingly debated through Christopher Shinn’s play – is that the exponential future improvement in the US traditionally offered by both Republicans and Democrats is now widely viewed as baloney. Trump won, Jim thinks, because rather than offering the standard brag that every four years bring new morning in America, he honestly admitted that it is midnight: mourning times that need dark leadership. Any would-be leader, Jim proposes, must admit the limits of optimism.

But for the pandemic, Shinn’s play would have premiered before the 2020 US election and might have been dated by the victory then of a veteran conventional Democrat. But Biden’s pitch – to transform the nation only in the sense of staunching his predecessor’s constitutional wounds – fits Shinn’s thesis, as does the possibility that Trump (or Trumpism) will win again with apocalyptic rhetoric in 2024. There is also topicality for UK audiences in poll-predicted next PM Liz Truss aiming for Downing Street with the more usually Washingtonian motto that “Britain’s best days are ahead of us”, against Rishi Sunak’s more realistic pitch.

Harry Lloyd in The Narcissist at Minerva, Chichester.
Vain ambition … Harry Lloyd in The Narcissist. Photograph: Johan Persson

In Now or Later (2008) and Teddy Ferrara (2015), Shinn sharply recorded post-digital shifts in political and personal communication, and Jim’s shaping of the senator’s brand has enough meat for a whole piece. Generously, though, it is embedded in an unnerving farce about the spin doctor’s life spinning out of control through distractions from a demanding mother, brother, lover and best friend. Their disparate catastrophes raise the question of whether the narcissism in the title refers to politicians, voters, Generations Y/Z, or Jim himself.

True to the times, much of the communication is texting, inventively represented, in Josh Seymour’s edgily swift staging, by incoming messages delivered soliloquy-style from the hanging pods of Jasmine Swan’s set, graphically depicting the invasion of mental space by constant contact.

Claire Skinner’s bright, brittle senator, who finally surprises with her views, impresses without an impression of any one politician. Harry Lloyd’s Jim exposes shaded layers of pain as a man understanding his country’s identity better than his own, and plays a frighteningly funny cross-generational dating disaster scene with Stuart Thompson’s reflexively judgmental young man.

At Minerva, Chichester Festival theatre, until 24 September.

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