Gambling in a theatre-casino won't help us understand the banking crisis

The Guardian 2 months ago

I’m sorry for what I’m about to say, I truly am. I can see the sweat that’s gone into the show £¥€$ (Lies). I appreciate the blood sacrifice, the potential lost thousands of pounds, of turning the 325-seat Almeida theatre into an immersive drama set for 60-odd people. And I applaud the aim of putting on a play notionally about the banking system that, according to the programme notes by the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed’s artistic director, Alexander Devriendt, is “just one tiny step to hopefully, one day, make a revolution happen”. Because who doesn’t want one of those to sweep aside our rotten economic system?

But despite the rapturous applause from theatre critics, including m’learned colleague Mark Lawson, I can’t join in. I did try. Like the rest of the audience filing in, I oohed over how a theatre had been turned into a casino, and aahhed as we were arranged around a table and handed our chips by our croupier-cum-market maker.

Trouble is, it’s a lot of effort for such a small ambition, a massive huff to go a tiny distance. I mean, really: the banking system as a giant casino? Financial speculation as gambling? How did they think of that?

The message theatregoers are meant to take away is that banks use jargon to obscure their private powers to create credit, which they often extend to invest in useless things that, uncannily, make them a lot more money. You could have made that argument before the banking crash, but also before any number of other financial crises. Precisely because it is an eternal truth, it doesn’t explain the 2008 crash – just as asserting that politicians fib doesn’t really cover Brexit.

Yet this show wants to be your guide to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and as such it is an epic failure. Just as with so many other plays about finance, it is so taken by the seductively shiny technicalities – the language of credit ratings and central banking – that it misses the fundamentally political nature of what has happened.

Financiers spent decades pushing for the lucrative era of financial globalisation; policymakers gave it to them. They blew up the world and then stuck the rest of us with the bill. So much is understood by anyone who, in the past few years, has seen their kid’s Sure Start close or had to wait a glacial age to see a doctor on the NHS.

I must confess to failing to see the drama in credit creation, but I can see plenty in a play about bank bailouts. Perhaps one day, some company will explore that rich terrain where balance sheets meet bureaucracies and financiers butt heads with ministers.

Ontroerend Goed’s show succumbs to the other besetting vice of crisis theatre: a steadfast belief that financial ruin must have both a face and an unparalleled greed. Closer to the truth would be to show a group of mild suits paid vast sums to do work that is dull yet all-consuming; individually prosaic but collectively perverse and ultimately dangerous. If theatre wants to depict that, it needs not easy morality tales but a willingness to think about systems and risk. Most of all, it needs a more complicated politics.

  • There are two nightly performances of £¥€$ (Lies) at Almeida theatre, London, until 18 August.

Tags: theatre
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