The London stage has been congratulating itself on its swift response to the financial crisis. But I’m not sure it is right to do so. There are now two major productions on the theme of irrational exuberance and hubris in business and finance—The Power of Yes, the new David Hare play at the National Theatre, and Enron by Lucy Prebble, which has just moved from Chichester to the Royal Court.
The latter is the far more successful of the two. It does what theatre is meant to do. In dramatising the rise and fall of the US energy company Enron, it explores character and motive, shows how normal people get to do abnormal things, and does so with pace, wit, music and movement. Moreover, I was in an uncomfortable seat with insufficient leg-room in the balcony, and yet the nearly three hour play sped by.
At the National, however, I had one of the best seats in the house, and was seated between Lionel Barber, editor of the FT, and Adair Turner, head of the FSA, who was thrilled to see himself played on the stage. Being in such company and knowing half the people being played on stage (I used to work at the FT) gave the evening some edge, but it did not make for a stimulating theatrical experience.
The Power of Yes is a thinly dramatised seminar on the financial crisis, which weaves together interviews with the real life “characters” of the crisis, such as George Soros and Howard Davies, lecturing us on what has been happening in the financial markets and why.
But it was all telling and not much showing. In his best political plays Hare has similarly gone out with his notebook and done extensive research, but crucially then turned that research into drama. In The Power of Yes Hare just gives us his notes and doesn’t bother to paint the dramatic picture. And it’s not as if the material is not there—think of Fred Goodwin of The Royal Bank of Scotland, or Adam Applegarth of Northern Rock. How did they get themselves and their organisations into such a mess? What was going on inside their heads? Is individual responsibility even relevant when there was clearly a system fault?
In Enron, Lucy Prebble makes a convincingly attractive anti-hero out of Jeff Skilling, the former president of Enron, and the man most responsible for the company’s off-balance sheet jiggery-pokery—indeed his peroration is an almost too convincing defence of the business buccaneer. Although Hare mainly kept his leftism on a short leash in The Power of Yes, it was as if he didn’t have sufficient sympathy for any of the characters in the real life drama of the financial bust to turn them into the stuff of theatre—they were all held at arms length, nothing more than talking heads.
One might make two points in Hare’s defence. First, I am not the audience he is trying to reach. As an ex-FT journalist and Prospect editor I’ve had to keep a close eye on the financial crisis and the play did not tell me much I didn’t know already. Hare is writing for those, like himself, who are ignorant of finance and baffled by recent events. However, the few people in that latter category I know who have seen the play did not come away satisfied.
The second argument for the defence might be that Hare simply didn’t have time to write a proper play, he was given only a few months from commission to first night (although the financial crisis did break more than two years ago). By contrast Lucy Prebble wrote her play over several years following the Enron implosion in 2001. She is lucky that the financial crash has made her theme of business excesses far more relevant. But the point is she is writing about human nature not about the particularities of Enron’s accounting tricks. You leave the Royal Court not understanding much more about the latter, but you do understand why the company blew up, because you understand something about the people who blew it up.
Perhaps the lesson is that playwrights should not chase ambulances. We all want theatre to be relevant but it should take its time and not try to do the job of newspapers or magazines—leave the surface events to us Sir David, you are meant to be digging for deeper truths.