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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 2 APRIL 2010 — At the start of the dramatist David Hare's play about the 2008 financial crisis — or rather about a playwright devising a play about the financial crisis — the on-stage "participants" question the wisdom of the author's project to his face. Apart from being uncomfortably solipsistic, the scene is also painfully true.

"How can you turn this into a drama,"  "what can you say that is new,"  "will you understand it," they ask him in turns. "It's boring, too technical," "it will just confirm the existing widespread hatred of bankers," Hare has them reply. Quite so.

The opening of The Power of Yes, with a series of actors playing bankers, regulators, investors and journalists as the author looks on and occasionally asks questions, is awkward enough. The problem is that — unlike in the innovative (if greedy and questionable) world of finance — things never evolve. The entire 1 hour 45 minutes without interval continues in the same vein as it begins.

Anthony Calf as The Author and Jonathan Coy as Howard Davies in The Power of Yes
Photo: © Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the National Theatre

That is not to say the play is not interesting to watch and well paced. There are some good observations and analyses of the recent near collapse of capitalism. And there is a sense of the conflicting explanations and motives behind the fall, which go beyond the simplistic approach of the film-maker Michael Moore in his recent Capitalism: A Love Story. But at least he makes eye-catching and humouristic cinema. Hare's product really is not theatre. It is a lazy and over-hasty first cut of a proto-drama.

Occasionally there is some striking theatricality in the play, as when a growing human chain of investors — instantly doubled in size by a giant set of mirror images projected effectively above the stage — exchanges pieces of ripped up paper, signifying the dispersal of securitised debt, and with it all responsibility for or understanding of the underlying risks.

Once or twice, Hare also intervenes with his own useful asides: the irony that many of those involved in the saga worked at Harvard, Goldman Sachs and the Financial Times, or sometimes at all three; or the wisdom when he upbraids an adviser helping him understand the arcane world of finance for saying "let's take this slowly." "You understand money, but I understand rhetoric," he says. "Going slowly impedes understanding."

Malcom Sinclair as Myron Scholes in The Power of Yes
Photo: © Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the National Theatre

He even has a journalist in his play draw a parallel explanation of self belief to explain the confidence and lack of post-crisis contrition of bankers — and of playwrights. Touché.

Largely, this play is pedagogy on a big stage, as the actor-participants explain their take on the crisis in mini-monologues with the actor-writer. It resembles the initial cutting room takes of a documentary on the financial crisis, the raw material from which something more artistic could be cut and honed.

There is plenty of potential drama in the financial crisis. Hare could have delved into the subtleties of a few players: what really made some of the big bankers tick; what were the pressures on the regulators, politicians, and investors; what did they really think of the potential risks; how far they were purely motivated by money?

The rehearsals he describes en passant of aides ahead of a parliamentary scrutiny of Sir Fred Goodwin, who turned the Royal Bank of Scotland into the company with nominally the largest assets in the world, could alone have made a play. So could have the fleeting reflections on the very different perspective of refugees of a previous generation from the ahistorical greed of a younger group without experience of disruption. Instead, Hare skips superficially from one character and trite description to the next.

He has semi-written a play about writing a play, which is not yet a play. A sort of semi-deceit, semi-conceit, just like the one at the heart of the financial crisis itself. Happily, the end of capitalism did not last, or seem with hindsight quite so devastating, long lasting or dramatic as it did even a few short months ago. Nor will this play.

The Power of Yes: A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis
By David Hare

Through 18 April 2010
Lyttelton, National Theatre
Royal National Theatre

South bank , London, SE1 9PX
Tel: (44) 020 7452 3000

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of and last wrote on Emily Prince's American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not Including the Wounded, Nor the Iraqis nor the Afghanis), currently on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Headline image:Simon Williams and Anthony Calf in The Power of Yes at the Lyttelton theatre.
Photo courtesy of the National Theatre

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