By David Hare
Directed by Angus Jackson
Venue: Lyttelton Theatre
Date: Thursday 15th October 2009
We decided not to have high hopes for this play after seeing such a fantastic performance of Enron earlier in the year. Surely we couldn’t get two great plays on such closely related subjects in the same year? And we know from experience not to get our expectations up as that usually leads to disappointment.
Well, I’m delighted to report that we both thoroughly enjoyed this new work. David Hare seems to have developed the knack of being entertaining as well as informative and here he manages to get across a great deal of technical detail while giving us many opportunities to laugh at both the people who contributed to this sorry mess, and even the situation itself at times (note to self: never let bailiffs get inside the door, not even to go to the loo!).
The set was uncompromisingly sparse. The screen at the back showed what looked like a charcoal rubbing of wooden floorboards to start with, then all sorts of other images to illustrate the story. I felt particularly nostalgic when the building society names were up there – those were the days. There was another screen nearer the front which was raised and lowered as necessary, and which usually showed at least a portion of the fuller picture on the rear screen, as well as the ‘scene’ headings. There was a blackboard, some chairs and a table that made infrequent appearances but other than that, the stage was bare.
When Anthony Calf as the author walked on from the back of the stage, I was surprised to see how deep the acting space was; with so little furniture it was hard to judge distance. Mind you, they needed the room, as a cast of twenty spread itself out over the stage to give us a chorus-like introduction to the credit crunch. One character even called it a Greek tragedy.
After a short while, most of the cast trooped off and the author was left with a journalist from the Financial Times who was going to tell him the story of how the global financial systems collapsed. As she did, various characters came forward, introduced by a young man or woman, and told us, via the author, their part in the story or how they saw it unfold, and why they’re not to blame. Some of the characters preferred to be anonymous. There were occasional clips of the lower part of Alan Greenspan’s face saying something profound (now known to be untrue) and the characters covered a broad spectrum of interested parties from all walks of life, from the (ex) Chairman of the FSA through politicians, investment bankers, lawyers, economists and journalists to a chap who worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, helping ordinary folk to deal with their debts. A large number appeared to have been at Harvard, Goldman Sachs and/or the Financial Times.
The character who probably came out best in all of this was George Soros. The author interviewed him, and this was shown at the end of the play so that his views on rampant capitalism were the final impression we were left with. In response to some comments by Alan Greenspan when the two of them had lunch some time before, about the benefits of capitalism being worth the price that had to be paid, Soros pointed out that the people who reap the benefits are not the same people who pay the price. A sobering thought, but unlikely to be a popular one with bankers.
I won’t go through the whole sordid story again here – frankly I couldn’t, as it was one of those things I followed well enough at the time, but couldn’t remember past the curtain call. I did get several ideas very clearly from it. One is that the people involved in banking are so brimful of self confidence (or could that be arrogance?) that they genuinely didn’t believe they had done anything wrong. On the way to the train, I recognised a similarity with Coriolanus. We as a society set bankers and other money men the task of making the country rich, without regulating how they should do that, and with the strange belief that if some people are coining it in then everyone benefits (trickle down theory). In the same way, Coriolanus is unleashed to give Rome military success, but when it comes to the social responsibility aspect neither he nor the bankers give a toss. So we all end up paying for our collective mistakes and ignorance.
Other points included the lack of regulation, the weird delusion that we’d broken through the cycle of boom and bust to a ‘new economics’, and that underpinning all this was a lack of knowledge of, and even interest in, history. Maniacal greed was also exposed, as one of the journalists explained that her friends who now worked in the city weren’t satisfied with only half a million a year. I think she’s also the one who pointed out that many of these financial folk consider they have earned the money instead of the company, and equate good luck with their own genius. And all of this unprecedented growth was founded on cheap labour in China.
There was a hint from George Soros near the end that the old capitalist certainties are changing (already there are moves to have the oil price quoted in a basket of currencies, including the Chinese Yuan) and with so many of the Western economies racking up huge debts he may well be right (he often is). So perhaps the lessons will be learned eventually, just not today.
The performances were all superb, as was to be expected from such a talented cast, and I only mention Anthony Calf in particular because he was not only on stage for almost the entire one and three quarter hours, he also provided the reactions that most of us would have had if we’d investigated the subject; bewilderment, anger, confusion, etc. I also liked his little demonstration of the need for speed in delivering a story, something the writer clearly understands. At one point, a journalist makes a comparison between the self confidence of the bankers and Hare’s own self belief. It’s a fair point in some ways, but then David Hare is unlikely to have been paid an obscene or disproportionate amount of money for writing his play, the enjoyment of his work is a subjective experience, and the measure of his success is bums on seats. The bankers, on the other hand, appear to be reaping rewards out of proportion to their effort or results, and the measure of their success can be clearly identified (if you can make sense of the bank’s accounts, that is). However, the comparison still has some validity, and I like the fact that this play has given me plenty to think about.
And how did it compare to Enron? Well, it didn’t have the singing and dancing nor the ladies’ knickers, but it did get the information across in an equally enjoyable way, so at least that’s two good things to come out of the credit crunch.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me