The sheer scale of the economic meltdown may be too complex to explain on stage — yet
Just as fact is often stranger than fiction, so reality is sometimes more theatrical than theatre. Both Lucy Prebble’s acclaimed new play Enron and David Hare’s The Power of Yes deal with recent financial disasters and both suffer from the problem that what has been happening in reality is so spectacular and so complex that it defies the confines of drama. The greed, the vanity, the recklessness, the bizarre financial vehicles, the creativity, the pathological dishonesty, the unforgivable ignorance, self-deception and political irresponsibility all demonstrated by real people who are still alive (apart from a few suicides and heart attacks) have no need of the embellishment of the imagination. The financial and political forces driving all this are too difficult to explain within the conventions of a play.
A better medium for such messages may be the documentary film. Several excellent documentaries have been produced about various aspects of this crisis. These have been enlightening and mesmerising, challenging one’s memories and ideas in a way that the best theatre does. For example, BBC2’s documentary about the fall of Lehman Brothers, The Love of Money, easily outshone The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, a BBC drama released at the same time about the same events. Reality — the real dishonesty, anger or shock on real people’s faces, coupled with a well-scripted factual explanation — was much more gripping than drama. Similarly, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, an independent documentary from 2005 about the spectacular rise and fall of the energy company, is both more startling and satisfying than Lucy Prebble’s version.
That is not to say her Enron (at the Royal Court until 7 November) is not enjoyable. It’s easy to see why it has already had a huge success in Chichester, and will soon (most unusually for a Royal Court play) be transferring to the West End. The production is slick and fun and funny, rather in the way that Caryl Churchill’s 1987 Serious Money was a delight — singing and dancing with energy and visual imagination. As Enron develops, three blind mice appear inconsequentially at times. They are the members of the board, blind to the massive fraud being concocted. Meanwhile, the hubristic chief executive and his crazy finance director are feeding masses of toxic debt to menacing red-eyed raptors in the corporation’s basement, while upstairs the dealers dance frantically in the hysteria and exhilaration of the bubble in which they exist. The Lehmans are two corrupt twins in a single suit, the chief accountant is a ventriloquist and the lawyers are blind. In the midst of this constant agitation and exuberance, the chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, superbly played by Sam West, blossoms like a poisonous plant from nerd into charismatic master of the universe.
This is very theatrical, but as an attempt to explain how the climate of the times made the Enron crash possible, and how the scam succeeded for so long, it didn’t do nearly enough. To turn the chairman, Ken Lay, into a bumbling Texan bore without much involvement when in fact he was wholly complicit, is to diminish both the story and its explanation. Perhaps that is because the writer felt any more complexity would have damaged its theatricality.
David Hare approaches this problem in precisely the opposite way. He doesn’t even attempt to give his subject theatrical life. The Power of Yes: A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis (Lyttelton until 10 January) is less a play than an animated lecture. It is spoken journalism with visual aids, in a set which most of the time is barely more than a lecture hall. As Hare’s character says at the beginning, “This isn’t a play…It doesn’t pretend to be a play.”
What we get is a playwright painstakingly trying, from a position of almost total ignorance, to learn how the crisis came about. From such a low starting point, he questions economics teachers, intellectuals, bankers, traders, hedge funders, civil servants, journalists — many of them actually named, such as “George Soros”, “Howard Davies”, “Ronald Cohen”, “Adair Turner”, “David Freud” and other real people, who presumably okayed the words Hare puts into their mouths — and he arrives at the best, fairest, simplest and clearest explanation of the whole thing that I have come across (apart from Bird and Fortune’s immortal comic explanation of subprime loans, to be found on YouTube). There will certainly be those who don’t agree with every aspect of Hare’s “story”. And I am not sure that a theatregoer with very little previous knowledge of this subject would be able to follow him right through. But it is certainly worth the effort.
As one might expect, nobody comes out of this well, not even the relatively good guys. One who comes out particularly badly is Gordon Brown. Hare’s characters skewer him without mercy and “Hare” appears to accept their evidence. “Brown was completely uninterested in regulation,” says “Howard Davies” (an actor playing the real-life first chairman of the “light-touch” Financial Services Authority, which Brown set up). “He never made any criticism of anything we did.” Another character says, “Brown was happy with the City so long as it generated huge amounts of cash” — an incredible 27 per cent of his total tax take, according to another. “It was his cash cow. Of course he wasn’t going to regulate it.” “Howard Davies” and “David Freud” strongly blame Brown for “stoking up the boom, just when he should have been doing the opposite”, for a general election that never happened. “You say Brown is clever,” says “Freud”. “I don’t think he’s clever.”
All this is extremely interesting for those interested in such things (and the house was packed). But it isn’t theatre. And if not, should it be in a theatre? To ask that is perhaps unfair to the production and to the actors, who managed to prevent a very dense text from being boring. But shouldn’t such a creation be presented in the Royal Geographical Society debating chamber or one of this country’s great civic halls?
Or is it, on the other hand, a new departure in theatre proper, which theatrical conventions can perfectly well accommodate? The theatre of explication, perhaps? Journodrama? What David Hare has written is something very hard to find anywhere else — a demanding, well-considered analysis intended to enlighten and arouse a passionate response, and meant to be shared in public. If that is not theatre, it is close.