On Friday night I went to the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, where we saw Guaranteed, Colin Murphy’s docudrama about the night of the banking guarantee. The performance was followed by a group discussion which featured Murphy, Fishamble’s Literary Manager Gavin Kostick, and three other people with political and financial expertise.
The theatre was packed, and I found myself understanding what people mean when they say that an atmosphere feels ‘charged’. There was the feeling of a lot of latent energy in the room – caused not only by the excitement of seeing a show that’s been getting good coverage but also by the continued frustration provoked by a week of listening to the Anglo tapes.
As it happens, I’d been in the NT archive a couple of weeks ago where I’d been looking at a David Hare play called The Power of Yes. That was a docudrama staged at the National in 2009 – less than a year after the credit crunch began (as it happens, Colin Murphy wrote a very good article about that play which can be viewed here: http://mondediplo.com/2010/02/17yesmen). The play is subtitled ‘a playwright tries to understand the financial crisis’, and in it Hare puts a playwright called David on stage, and has him interact with various interviewees from the financial sector, all of whom explain how and why the problems arose.
I found The Power of Yes interesting for many reasons. Theatrically, it’s another example of Hare’s work in verbatim theatre/docudrama. I have admired productions like Stuff Happens and The Permanent Way, and was curious to see how Hare would handle a play in which he is putting himself up on stage too. I also admired the performance style, which involved the use of a mostly empty stage, and a large screen upon which images, statistics, captions and some videos were projected. Hare wrote the Power of Yes like a five-act tragedy, and the play’s self-referentiality and playfulness are enjoyable to watch. In fact, the imposition of a narrative upon the events of the credit crunch helps to make sense of what is often a fairly heavy-going exposition of the mechanics of the financial markets.
And it was also good to see that the problems we faced in 2008 were not exclusive to Ireland.
I did find myself thinking it strange that in Britain they had a documentary play about the financial crisis before the end of 2009, whereas we’re only getting one now, five years after the guarantee was given. I’ve thought for a long time that we in Ireland were missing out on that fascinating expansion in verbatim theatre that happened internationally around the time of the invasion of Iraq. We missed out on the urgency and vibrancy of the Tricycle’s tribunal plays (aside from Bloody Sunday), and we’ve also missed the playfulness and experimentation of practitioners like Alecky Blythe. Of course there has been some work here, by people like Helena Enright among others. But there wasn’t much awareness here of the urgency of the work appearing in Britain and elsewhere.
In fairness, though, we in Ireland spent 2009 dealing not just with the crash but also with the Ryan Report, and it’s worth recalling that the late Mary Raftery did produce a documentary reconstruction of that report, which was staged by the Abbey in its Peacock stage.
Guaranteed comes in two (loose) parts. There is a long first part which acts as a kind of prologue or countdown to the night of the banking guarantee: we see Anglo-Irish bank winning an award at the World Economic Forum, we see Bertie Ahern addressing an Ard Fheis, and so on. There’s also a great scene involving Brian Cowen who is shown singing while much more important events transpire around him: for effectiveness this portrayal reminded me of Michael Moore’s presentation of George W Bush in the minutes after the World Trade Centre had been attacked in his polemic Fahrenheit 911.
And then in the second half we see a reconstruction of what happened on the night of the Banking Guarantee – so here Murphy is drawing not from the written record but from interviews and his own imagination. What struck me most about this part of the production is that the scenes that show Cowen and Lenihan struggling to decide what to do make for great drama. To watch the play is, I think, to be faced with the reality that if you or I were in Government Buildings on that night in September 2008, there is no guarantee that we would have acted any differently from how those two politicians did. The play still leaves us in no doubt that the banking guarantee was a mistake, and a catastrophic one at that. But it makes it more difficult simply to blame the people involved.
In the post-show discussion, Murphy was asked about the ethics of representing real people, and he spoke interestingly about the need to be honest about what is on the record, while also being respectful of the fact that (for example) Brian Lenihan passed away a couple of years ago. That’s the kind of balancing act that people like David Hare have been negotiating for a very long time now, and it’s certainly not an easy one to achieve. Brian Cowen does not come out of Guaranteed very well, but that is simply because Murphy presents him as doing things that he is on the record as having done. But the portrayal of Lenihan is fairly neutral (and I use the word ‘fairly’ in both senses). So as a theatre scholar, I was interested in seeing how Murphy dealt with the ethics of verbatim and documentary theatre.
The performance was given with the actors reading from the scripts, and so my final question was whether the play could be brought to a full production. I think it would certainly work if fully theatricalised – plays like The Power of Yes and Lucy Prebble’s Enron show that this kind of material can sustain a theatre audience’s interest for a couple of hours. And I also think there must be an audience for this kind of play. Depressing as the subject matter was, it was great to sit in the Mermaid with an audience that were so impassioned, and so angry. Too much ‘political’ work has the impact merely of confirming what we already know, but this production will have deepened our knowledge of the causes of the financial crisis – and it will also have prevented us from reaching any simplistic conclusions about who is to blame for it.
Leaving Guaranteed I felt more strongly than ever that we need a banking enquiry in Ireland – but I also felt like I always do whenever I come out of a play that has entertained me, made me think, and encouraged me to keep thinking after the action has concluded.
I don’t know if this will encourage more people to create this kind of work – I hope so. But since Guaranteed finishes its run tonight, I hope this isn’t the last time we’ll be seeing this production – or others like it.