The Power of Yes is both an informative introduction to international high finance and a good night out in the theatre. The latest work by the highly prolific British playwright David Hare follows the template of his Iraq-invasion docu-drama Stuff Happens by being a free-form non-fiction piece in which real-life figures appear speaking in their own words. The difference here is that the central character is Hare himself - played by the engagingly rueful Brian Lipson - and the story follows the narrative of his researches into the causes of the Global Financial Crisis, from its origins in the subprime mortage collapse in the US through to its repercussions around the world and specifically in the UK.
Hare engaged the services of a young economist, Masa Serdarevic (Amber McMahon) to explain how, suddenly, in September 2008, capitalism stopped working. He also interviewed bankers, investors, officials, financial journalists, academics, and lawyers, played here by ten male actors in sharp suits who jump on and off stage as required, offering their takes on what the hell went so spectacularly wrong.
What did go wrong? I'm not going to try and explain it here. Suffice to say that this production, directed by Sam Strong, is clear, breezy and light on its feet with what could have been a weighty mass of information. When Masa explains to Hare what a securitised credit arrangement is, the others illustrate with a dumb show using Monopoly money and bunches of balloons representing the toxic debt that has been bundled and sold off. Hare's witty script homes in on the various commentators' helpful similes: the investment world, for instance, is like a "dance marathon" where no one dares stop tangoing. Dale Ferguson's clever set looks like a corporate office the day after a colossal kids' birthday party, with burst balloons covering the floor in an impressionistic riot of colour.
The GFC, Hare says, was about “the death of an idea… now we know that the markets aren’t decent, or wise.” He goes further, saying that by bailing out the banks, Obama and Gordon Brown plunged the world into a new form of socialism: one that provided a safety net for the rich only. See this play and chances are you’ll feel like leaving the theatre straight for Martin Place, torches and pitchforks at the ready. Nick Dent
David Hare's use of current events, public figures and verbatim quotations in his recent plays has divided critics. Some dismiss the writer of Stuff Happens, The Vertical Hour and Gesthemane as a journalist lacking dramatic imagination; others praise him for pioneering a new genre. His latest work, The Power of Yes, about the Global Financial Crisis, premiered successfully in London in 2009, with some reservations among newspaper reviewers. We put some of their objections to the director of the Belvoir St Theatre's production of the play, Sam Strong, who happens to be a qualified barrister. He defended his author vigorously.
On the charge that Hare has committed an act of journalism in a designated theatre zone, Strong argues it's possible to get better drama by having key players such as Alan Greenspan on stage in their own words. "These people are already more authentic than fictional counterparts," he said, adding, "the details of a real person can provide a starting point for an actor that they would not otherwise have in a purely fictional scenario."
Hare appears to have anticipated his critics' line of attack, because the first line of the play, given to a character called the Author, is: "This isn't a play." Strong won't concede whether it is or isn't, but diverts the argument as to whether it makes good drama. "The mastery of what David Hare has achieved with The Power of Yes is to structure and shape the verbatim material like a play: to take the audience on a journey, to surprise them, to move them."
And what of those who condemned Hare's beginning his large and distinguished cast of characters with himself? A hackneyed, shallow ploy, and a vain one at that? Again, Strong returns to dramatic effectiveness. "What David has done with the author figure is provide a guide for the audience's journey through the piece, a conduit, if you like, between the world of high finance and the audience. It should be as fascinating to a financial layperson as it is compelling for an investment banker."
The play is solidly packed with technical economic detail, but Hare takes a rare break to have the Author questioned about bad reviews of his plays. "They're always wrong," he declares authoritatively.
Yes, no or maybe?
What London critics said about The Power of Yes
"A compelling portrait of the perennial human vices of greed, dishonesty, self-delusion and cowardice... It’s all good, meaty, insightful stuff, delivered with wonderful clarity." Sunday Times
"Some will say this is theatre as journalism. But, if part of journalism's mission is to explain and inform, that seems to me a virtue." The Guardian
"This piece is not so much a play proper as an artfully arranged dramatisation of the research that could have led to one." The Independent
"Theatrically, there's no escaping the fact that this is a two-hour lecture from a lot of men in suits." Time Out London