A little over a year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank and the resulting economic meltdown, the theatre industry finally seems to be catching up. David Hare’s new play is the latest in a spate of new work to take the financial crisis as its subject matter.
Subtitled “A Dramatist Seeks to Understand the Economic Crisis”, The Power of Yes is essentially an edited compilation of interviews conducted by the author over the past year with a multitude of people who were at the heart of the crash, and who give their own accounts of what happened.
Hare himself is represented on stage by the character of “The Author” (Anthony Calf), who asks questions, sifts through the various opinions and occasionally interjects clarifying remarks. A large screen behind the actors intercedes to break the action into chunks, with titles such as “The Death of an Idea”.
The play then is really dramatised journalism. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately The Power of Yes suffers from other, more fundamental, problems.
The Author claims to want to understand the people and processes that caused the crisis, yet his analytic focus is narrow and myopic. He doggedly attempts to understand the minute processes by which banks repackaged and sold parcels of debt, interrogating the opaque lexicon of finance. While this throws up a few interesting passages, The Author’s attempt at understanding is hampered both because he fails to locate the banking collapse within a broader context and because he largely seems to assume that the bankers understand their own trade.
By the end of the play Hare leaves his audience – and his on-stage doppelganger – more confused than they were at the start. Towards the end we are treated to some mildly interesting anecdotes – such as the fact that Sir Fred Goodwin hired advisers to help him “rehearse” the humility he needed to show in his appearance before a parliamentary select committee. But these are a poor substitute for the kind of incisive exposé that the play promises.
This confused structure is compounded by the play’s sheer blandness, which compares poorly to the vitality of Lucy Prebble’s play Enron (as reviewed last month), currently playing at the Royal Court Theatre.
The Author’s conclusion, given towards the end of the play – that the crisis marks the end of the idea that the free market can helpfully run every sector in society – may be accurate, but it is hardly a revelation. Instead it marks Hare’s failure to understand or communicate the material basis of the crisis. This is hardly surprising. The Author makes light of the fact that all his interviewees seem to work at either the Financial Times, the London School of Economics or the Financial Services Authority – and in some cases all three. The only mention of anyone outside this distinguished class comes in the form of a half-hearted lament for the “innocent bystanders” who, it is speculated, may be harmed by the crash.
If The Power of Yes effectively demonstrates anything it is that the self-styled “masters of the universe” were in fact little more than impotent bystanders once their system began to spiral into chaos. It will be interesting to see how other dramatists respond to the period ahead, and the potential resistance from the true originators of capitalist wealth – workers.
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