The writer of a new play about banking, Lies, had contempt for finance – until he started writing a play about the financial crisis. BBC arts correspondent Vincent Dowd went to see it, and found it stimulates audiences, too, in some rather unexpected ways.
Ever thought you could make a better fist of the banking and investment business than those City bankers?
Enter the theatre. For the next two weeks the play, Lies (£Y€$) invites the audience to hand over their money and have a go.
And things can get very dark indeed.
“Lies”, just opening in London, encourages audiences to adopt the ways of the big bankers, shaping the world’s economy. They may also find they enjoy the sense of power even if they didn’t expect to.
The stage is arranged to resemble a darkened casino, usually with six or 12 gaming tables around the room. Each table seats seven audience members – groups are deliberately split up on arrival – plus a smooth-talking croupier, who’s played by an actor.
The croupiers advise and, perhaps, do a bit of provoking with the hint of limitless wealth.
The show begins as a fairly straightforward casino game that becomes more complex as concepts are introduced such as government bonds and shorting (agreeing to sell something you don’t own in the hope you can pick it up more cheaply before you have to provide it).
For perhaps 45 minutes the mood remains benign. The friendly croupier is happy to make loans to those in need and fresh gaming chips seem plentiful.
The time hurtles by.
And as the tension builds through the two hour show no one seems tempted by the bar or the usual queue for the loo.
At the performance I attended our table initially did well and our credit rating briefly reached A- (pretty good for novices). But we fell to a C rating (bad, close to junk bond status) and the pile of expensive bonds we’d acquired became almost worthless.
Had the helpful croupier been quietly pushing us to overreach ourselves?
There were two members of the table who even late on had substantial piles of chips in front of them: were they smarter than me or just lucky?
At one point we learn that certain tables are now so weak they’re in danger of crashing out of the world economy totally.
The theatre turns cacophonous as representatives from failing economies such as ours roam the floor trying to secure deals with stronger players.
Tense music underscores everything and voices rise in panic.
What sort of a deal could anyone reach in such circumstances. Of course, it makes compelling drama. And like the whole evening it’s great fun.
Given how crucial the world of banking and finance has been in recent years, there have been surprisingly few plays which have illuminated the business of making money.
Thirty years ago, Caryl Churchill had a stage hit with Serious Money, starring a young Gary Oldman.
But the closest the theatre has come to a film like the 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street might be Lucy Prebble’s play ENRON.
The Lehman Trilogy, currently a hot ticket on stage in London, is an engrossing family chronicle but shows a limited interest in the way finance works.
Perhaps it’s all inherently hard to dramatise.
Ignorance and power
So, how true to life is Lies?
The Belgian director, Alexander Devriendt, says players who worked on Wall Street or in Hong Kong have sometimes acknowledged that real markets can be just as simple in how they operate.
He says the show was created because of his distaste for and ignorance of, money at the time of the crash of 2008.
The world financial system stumbled, tottered and had appeared close to collapse.
“‘I remember the powerlessness I felt then,”‘ he says. “It’s amazing that already it’s like it never happened: we don’t really talk about it anymore and people think it can’t happen again.
“But I was looking from the outside and I blamed the bankers – I was angry at them. Of course I’m an artist so also I was proud that I didn’t know anything about money – because money is for other people and it’s dirty. I thought money isn’t inspirational the way art is.”
“But I now think it’s absurd to know so little about something that’s so important in your life. Our show works by empathy: people learn because they feel what structures and what ways of thinking led to a financial crisis and maybe understand how bankers behaved.”
The beast unleashed
Angelo Tijssens worked on the script and is also one of those who, like demonic Masters of Ceremonies, give out the increasingly awful news which affects the course of the game.
He says, by putting theatre goers in the position of the bankers, the audience learns to understand the system.
“We put the audience in the position of the 1% – of the very rich. And some theatregoers may find that uncomfortable. Instead of showing bankers who are just coke-snorting yuppies, we give people in the audience the same tools they had, to look at the system from the inside. That’s much more important than just shouting our opinions about how bad it all is.
“We’re all a part of it whether we want to be or not.”
Angelo Tijssens says on powerful nights it’s like a beast has been unleashed in the theatre and not even the actor-croupiers can control it.
It is possible some audience members have become so engrossed they have even considered selling their granny?
“Lies”, presented by the Ontroerend Goed company, is at the Almeida theatre in London until 18 August.