The Power of Yes @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Julien Ball, Ian Bartholomew, Anthony Calf, Richard Cordery, Jonathan Coy, Mark Elstob, Paul Freeman, Ian Gelder, John Hollingworth, Bruce Myers, Claire Price, Jeff Rawle, Christian Roe, Jemima Rooper, Malcolm Sinclair, Peter Sullivan, Nicolas Tennant, Alan Vicary, Simon Williams, Lizzie Winkler

directed by
Angus Jackson
David Hare’s new topical play is subtitled ‘A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis’ – and it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Over an interval-less one and three-quarter hours, The Power of Yes succeeds in giving a clear and accessible summary of the causes behind the worldwide recession but it comes across as a brilliant piece of extended journalism rather than fully-fledged drama.

Hare has dabbled before in verbatim theatre with The Permanent Way, an analysis of the privatization of the railways drawn from interviews with passengers, train-operators and policy-makers, while his debate on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war in Stuff Happens was based on a mixture of on-the-record comments and speculative behind-closed-doors conversations of the Bush and Blair administrations.
The Power of Yes likewise is an intelligent examination of a highly important contemporary issue using the words of bankers, financiers, politicians, academics and journalists whom Hare interviewed to get at the truth behind the headlines. You certainly can’t fault his research but it has the misfortune to be on at the same time as Lucy Prebbles dynamic and entertaining ENRON, which also looks at the rotten state of recent financial history, now wowing audiences at the Royal Court before heading for the West End.<

Hare makes an attempt at the outset to deflect criticism when ‘The Author’ (a rather naive version of himself) tells the audience direct that “This isn’t a play, it’s a story”. In fact, it’s more like an illuminating digressive essay or lecture performed by a cast of 20 than a narrative-driven account of the events leading up to the global credit-crunch crisis of a year ago.

Hare uses the simple structural device of someone guiding The Author through financial technicalities in a classroom-style explanation of the likes of hedge funds, sub-prime mortgages and the Black Scholes Equation for managing risk, while leading players come on stage to give their opinions, introducing each other to the audience.

In a subtle, often witty expose of how banks overreached themselves in hubristic lending while bad debts were passed on from one corporation to another, what emerges strongly is not so much the avarice of those speculating with other people’s lives as the way in which their arrogance made them lose touch with reality. As someone says, “Capitalism works when greed and fear are in the correct balance” – when the former dominated the latter the whole system teetered out of control.

Hare’s wide-ranging and well-balanced critique of the flawed inner workings of capitalist market economy does not parade his socialist principles, though his alter ego believes we are witnessing ‘the death of an idea’. He is intent on elucidation rather than polemicization, and does not try to lay down what could or should happen in the future. But his own views are probably expressed in the very last line of the play, as George Soros, the powerful Hungarian hedge-fund manager turned philanthropist, says: “The people who end up paying the price are never the people who get the benefits.”

Angus Jackson’s slick and fluid production makes sure the play never grinds to a halt like the economy, with the heavyweight experts nicely choreographed as they circulate the stage like figures on a senior-executive carousel. Bob Crowley’s digital displays and projections, including algebraic equations and images of buildings in the city, also enliven a potentially ponderous evening.

The cast does well to individualize the mainly middle-aged male besuited ensemble, so that all is not tinged with grey uniformity. Anthony Calf is an engaging Author, showing both perplexity and occasionally anger, in his attempts to understand the complexities of market and human behaviour. Jemima Roper plays his demystifying mentor Masa Serdarevic, Jonathan Coy is Howard Davies, first Chair of the Financial Services, Nicolas Tennant the old-style no-nonsense Labour MP Jon Cruddas and Bruce Myers has a delicious cameo as the fascinatingly ambivalent Soros who speaks with Delphic authority.

Hare was specifically commissioned by National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner to write a play on the financial collapse, and he has fulfilled his brief by illuminating a tricky subject for audiences today. However, by not making a drama out of a crisis it is difficult to imagine The Power of Yesbeing performed again in years to come though as we know all too well the future is highly unpredictable.

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