Greed and Growth
Published in the New Statesman, 21.02.2013
Now is not a good time to be a theatre-loving banker. London’s stages are awash with moneymen either repellently unrepentant or bankrupt and suicidal. Should the recession triple-dip, don’t be surprised to see theatre-makers burning effigies in pinstripe suits. Greed is most definitely the in sin.
At the Bush theatre, two former hedgefund managers, Queenie and Casino, have turned performance artists. They almost look the part, colour-blocking for broke, only every item of clothing is high-end designer, probably bespoke. Shoes are snakeskin, jackets peacock and asymmetric haircuts look blow-dried. With the theatre made up like a gaudy ITV studio, they’re hostingMoney: the Game Show and have plonked Unlimited Theatre’s £10,000 grant onstage in cash – a golden dollop of pound coins dwarfed by the hefty bouncer hired by order of insurers.
The writer Claire Duffy weaves together three strands: a performance-lecture on the unreality of currency, valuable only by worldwide consent; an interactive game show, in which two teams bet on bubbles not bursting to scoop as much sterling as possible; and Queenie and Casino’s boom-to-bust story. Having spotted housing prices were set to nose-dive, they set up a hedge fund designed to profit from the plummet. One got out at just the right time; the other held on too long.
The interactive element is brilliantly conceived, capturing the thrilling adrenal kick of competition and gambling. Very quickly, the game turns serious: one moment you’re bending the rules to your advantage, the next demanding they be upheld to the letter. Stop and look around: ordinary people are braying like bloodhounds. It’s faintly horrifying.
What sets Money apart, though, is the distance Duffy pushes the financial collapse – not just to a deeper, harsher recession, nor even to wonga-filled wheelbarrows but to full-blown economic apocalypse. Beyond bailouts and fiscal life-support until money simply stops working, reverts to paper, nickel and brass, and the world collapses into chaos. What’s terrifying is how close we came. This was the warning from the former US secretary of state for the treasury Hank Paulson, an ex-banker worth $700m, and the idea made him physically sick. We make money, Duffy concludes; “We can make it better.”
There’s a similar note of hope at the end of of dreamthinkspeak’s latest theatrical labyrinth. Like Money, it pushes the present towards a dystopian implosion. This time, the focus is the inexorable march of science and consumerism. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch A Cloudburst of Material Possessions, in which household objects rain down from the sky, dreamthinkspeak has taken over the depths of Somerset House and King’s College London to posit a world in which technology turns against us.
We start in a dusty laboratory, teeming with old-school electrical equipment. Green sine waves oscillate on square screens. Scientists in bow-ties wander dazedly, fetching resistors and wires, muttering in a foreign language. One chalks an endless equation on the walls of a blackboard room. It’s deeply atmospheric: eerie but full of wonder. Tucked away in one room, a zany scientist has hooked eight lemons into a circuit to make an LED glow dimly. With thousands, he could power a car; with billions, a city.
From there, we’re zapped into the clinical, white showrooms of Fusion International, where gadgets on display keep malfunctioning. The anger-management machine answers back. The automated bionic arm throws a strop. Petbot does nothing but dance. Upstairs, the complaints department is buckling and, forced to keep blasting letters of apology, its workers rebel. One by one, they stand, disrobe and walk away. Further up the food chain, executives are in crisis. As their mass-produced robots turn ever nastier, the corporation crumples.
Much of the pleasure comes from piecing together the installation’s jigsaw. Yet dreamthinkspeak don’t reward deeper detective work. Open a filing cabinet and its full, but the contents are just so much stuff: science books, religious paintings – all relevant but never pertinent. In the end, the sum is less than the adding of parts. Nonetheless, once or twice, Tristan Sharps and his team produce moments of searing beauty. A spiral staircase dotted with naked bodies. Suited executives tumbling past second-storey windows in slow motion. And finally, a blissfully unexpected orchard, all lush greens and zinging yellows, sparkling with fairy lights. What is it they say? When life gives you lemons . . .
Photograph: Jim Stephenson