Do you believe Brian Lenihan or David McWilliams? IBEC or the Unions? Were the bankers gangsters, or simply suffering from hubris?
If conflict is at the heart of drama, then the collapse of the Irish economy should have proved a goldmine for dramatists. A society swept up by irrational exuberance; lone voices shouting stop; pantomime villains; and as many different interpretations of the crisis as there were characters: all the ingredients of good drama were there.
We’ll see the social effects of the downturn on the Irish stage soon, no doubt: Irish theatre has always been good at documenting the intimate minutiae of Irish lives and communities. But it has rarely risen to the challenge of responding rapidly to great political and cultural events.In England, though, politics is a central concern of the stage. Till recently, that rarely extended to the politics of finance. But with Lucy Prebble’s play for the Royal Court, ENRON, about to open in the West End, and a new play by Dennis Kelly (co-writer with Sharon Horgan of the hit sitcom, Pulling), about the excesses of a CEO, The Gods Weep, opening at Hampstead in March, money is talking on the London stage.
One of the people it’s talking through is playwright David Hare. Hare has been the most consistent champion of political theatre in Britain for close on three decades. In more recent years, he’s taken his obsessive interest in politics and public rhetoric to a new pitch, by adopting and then proselytising the techniques of so-called documentary theatre.
In The Permanent Way, he told the story of the privatisation of British Rail, and subsequent rail tragedies, based entirely on verbatim transcripts of interviews with protagonists.
In Stuff Happens, he told the story of the run-up to the Iraq war, with George Bush, Tony Blair and their lieutenants as his key characters, combining their actual words with fictionalised scenes of private negotiations.
Now, in The Power of Yes, at the National Theatre in London (running till April 18; see www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) Hare attempts to tell the story of the financial crisis that erupted with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, catching the British (and Irish) economies spectacularly in its wake.
Unlike Lucy Prebble’s ENRON, Hare doesn’t attempt to dramatise or fictionalise: The Power of Yes is ninety minutes of talking heads, taken from the transcripts of Hare’s interviews with players in British and American finance, and even from his discussions with a private tutor the theatre hired to explain economics to him.
There is no development of character, no plot, and no action: instead, there is the Author (as a character) asking questions of various bankers, bureaucrats, journalists and others. The momentum is that of an argument rather than that of a drama.
In other words, this isn’t a play. As one audience member remarked, it’s as if Hare decided to stage his notes for a play, without having bothered to write the play itself.
But Hare himself admits this: “This isn’t a play,” says the character of the Author at the very start. “It doesn’t pretend to be a play. It pretends only to be a story.
“And what a story! How capitalism came to a grinding halt.”
And that is the crux of it. This is an extraordinary story, but one that too often (in other tellings) is rendered obscure by jargon or impenetrable by obfuscation. As George Soros observes at the outset of the play, the problem for Hare in trying to dramatise the crisis “is that it’s a big event, but it’s an abstract event”. (Soros is Hare’s highest-profile, and most effective, interviewee-character.)
In opting not to fictionalise, Hare is placing his faith in an audience’s willingness to accompany him on a journey into the abstract. And because he sacrifices no stage time to character or action, he can accommodate a unique density of information and argument.
Hare’s argument for doing all this on stage – as opposed to in a tv documentary, or an essay, which would more obviously suit his material – is simply that he is a playwright: putting things on stage is what he does.
Criticising Hare for not having had the imagination to condense his information into a “play” is beside the point: his achievement lies in crafting a smart, accessible, but densely packed, explanation of the financial crisis.
In doing so, Hare provides something of a model for other theatres that seek to address contemporary events – such as the Abbey. The Abbey will never beat Prime Time at its own game, but utilising journalistic techniques to tell an urgent story on stage may be an efficient way of bringing politics into the heart of the theatre.
Two other initiatives at the National Theatre are worth mentioning. I saw The Power of Yes on a Sunday afternoon, and paid £10 for my ticket. Sunday matinees and £10 tickets are two of the audience-friendly initiatives introduced by the National’s boss, Nicholas Hytner; another is a scheme providing £5 tickets for 15-25 year olds.
When a theatre is that dynamic in building its audience, it can afford to take more risks with the material it stages. And that’s certainly a model to be followed closer to home.
Written for my Saturday theatre column in the Irish Independent on January 9, 2010