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Unenquiring and Unworthy

Verbatim Theatre

The Power of Yes , Royal National Theatre, London , October 29, 2010
Verbatim Theatre by The Power of Yes “The Power of Yes”, the National Theatre of England’s response to the banking meltdown, received a warm critical response when it opened in October last year. Its word of mouth reputation has been spiralling downward ever since. On BBC2’s end of year arts review it was kicked all over the place. The non-professional critics on that programme were right.

The most curious thing about it is that a play about banking, the biggest play-writing commission of the year, has no bankers in it. But then it never seems very interested in its subject. Early on it tries to show that the pre-wrecked RBS had grown bigger than Britain itself. But it completely muddles the difference between GNP and the value of the entire national assets.

It is symptomatic of the lack of engagement with the material that the name of novelist-guru Ayn Rand is mispronounced throughout. Baroness Vadera is also mis-spelt in the programme. The programme also misattributes to Ms Rand the phrase “creative destruction”. That was Joseph Schumpeter, and the Austrian School, to which he belonged, was in fact a fierce antagonist of Ms Rand. This might be intellectual hair-splitting but a theatre which goes in for fine-grained examination of the behaviour of cabinet ministers should give equal respect to libertarian thinkers.

As a piece of writing it suffers from several deficiencies. The first is the selection of interviewees. In “the Permanent Way”, the play about the balkanisation of the rail system, the researcher found a gang who worked on the line. That group- Catweasel, Rocker, Big Heap, Piemuncher and all the rest- gave the play a raw authentic voice. “The Power of Yes” has not a voice from the front line of the cataclysmic events of September 2008. One interviewee is a National Theatre board member. Another interviewee requesting anonymity looks like a former Chair of the theatre.

The other twenty-two characters are a motley collection of onlookers and observers, journalists, venture capitalists, civil servants, knights and lords. There are no players from the top twenty or thirty public companies that collectively created the mess. The Hare trilogy was rightly seen as a high point in the National’s history and “Racing Demon” felt at the time like a masterpiece. But the absence of any bankers in “the Power of Yes” is akin to that play on the Anglican Church being purged of all its vicars and bishops.

The role of the narrator is a second weakness. He appears to be called David Hare but he isn’t. He is dim and dull, while the playwright is neither. Early on he says his wealth is all held in a post office account. The only purpose of that line is to wave a big sign that says “I represent Virtue.” Dramatically he is a dreary presence on stage. Had he had lost a fortune in Iceland he might have had some fire in him. The writer’s first West End play “Knuckle” had a city grandee in it, Patrick Delafield, portrayed with more character than anything to be seen here.

Thirdly there is the surprising sheer shallowness of much of the writing. The former US president of course comes in for jibes. That the drive to extend home ownership was a policy of his predecessor goes unmentioned. He of course is “one of us”. There is a sly insinuation that an American cabinet member placed private interest ahead of public duty. Without evidence that is gossip. An asinine couple of lines are intended to raise a laugh at the expense of Britain’s most flamboyant entrepreneur. There is far too much abuse of senior members of the Labour party, as well as the other party leaders. A Nobel prize-winner is depicted as a caricature. The shape of the head of a former bank supremo is a cause of mockery.

Statistical techniques like the Monte Carlo Simulation and binomial Option Model are derided simply for what they are. This is as absurd as statisticians mocking theatre because grown-up people speak words that have been written down beforehand.

A concept needs to be critiqued from a position of at least small understanding. Lucy Prebble reportedly in “Enron” takes pains to ensure her audience understands the concept of mark-to-market accounting. But as the intellectual grounding of “the Power of Yes” is a know-nothing populism it has no interest in understanding.

“The bankers” are treated as an undifferentiated group but they are as varied as any other human group. The more cerebral types at J P Morgan were appalled that their derivative models, created as tools to understanding, were used without applying human intelligence.

Those things at which theatre is rather good are passed over. One is the exposure of moral action. “Greed” is just a label; an audience deserves action and character. This was after all a world in which salesmen deposited money in an applicant’s account, photocopied the bank statement, took the money back, okayed the mortgage application and pocketed the commission. That is not greed; that is a lie.

As a subject it is ripe for savage Swiftian treatment. “This is not a play. It is a story” is an early line. If so, it is a story without character, tension, development or drama. Yet there are so many luscious tales to be told. The thirty mill a year man who can only look upwards in envy at the hedgie who takes home a billion. It’s a toss-up whether these men are fit for comedy or tragedy. One foul-mouthed introvert had the lifts in his tower re-engineered so that he might never, ever meet a single one of his tens of thousands of employees.

Another deposed CEO started his week with a conference call with his reporting directors. Nothing unusual in that but the practice was to ask for information that he knew would not be available. The resulting humiliation was not incidental but the whole purpose, to demonstrate the primacy of one alpha male over the pack. It was the sociology of gorillas, albeit with IQ measurements of one hundred and fifty. It would be funny if these men did not carry colossal public responsibility.

There is a rich comedy to be had in the tricks the deal-makers used in fiddling their way past their own risk officers. There is even a more serious play on deprofessionalisation. A brilliant supermarket executive is put in charge of a bank to City acclaim. He behaves as a brilliant supermarket executive, brilliantly and brilliantly wrongly.

Mortgages were given out to more astronauts than have ever lived or will ever live. The reason was that “A” for “astronaut” came early in a self-certifying drop-down menu. All those Special Investment Vehicles had one purpose and that was to deceive. At some point in these hierarchies a lie, an action, crossed into the abstraction of a ledger. Where and how that happened is theatrically interesting but does require some work.

Twenty-one actors are needed for this production. A battling little company would have done it with four. As for the audience they deserve more than a ninety-minute scamper through the headlines. There is no good reason they are deprived of a proper full-length drama.

Theatre is there to give us pain, or passion, or comedy, or excitement, or anger, anything rather than a limp lettuce of various knights, journalists and civil servants. A citizens’ advice manager is brought on at the end but the only voice of youth is a bumptious Oxford maths graduate. The brightest of the next generation are serving behind shop counters or working as “interns” for periods of indeterminate length. Their voices are not to be heard.

“The Power of Yes” is political theatre at its nadir. It starting point is the superior virtue of “us”. That is its middle point and its end point too. But earnestness is not seriousness. The compilation of the material is expert enough to just about keep tedium at bay. The playing as would be expected is speedy and energetic. It is beautifully lit.

The old media may be on their knees but the publishing industry has done a good job in producing sharp, readable books authentically from the front line. It is not the job of a theatre company, least of all one of this stature, to be peddling second hand journalism.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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