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…