Saturday 10 October 2009

The Power of Yes - National Theatre

[Written for CultureWars]

“This isn’t a play” says “David Hare” at the start of his latest “play” The Power of Yes. That’s alright, Sir David, neither were Berlin or Via Dolorosa. And, frankly, if Gethsemane and The Vertical Hour were anything to go by, we should all be rather grateful.

At a later point, one of Hare’s “characters” quotes Andy Warhol’s suggestion that people continue to have sex because it reminds them that sex used to be good. Perhaps this is why the National Theatre keep on staging plays by David Hare.

The Power of Yes is a piece of verbatim theatre. David Hare went out with a dictaphone, or video-camera, or whatever, and interviewed a load of people about the recent financial crisis and then edited the results into an hour and fifty minutes of the bits he thought were interesting and shaped them into a kind of narrative; sometimes, within the process, commenting on this fact to the people he was talking to.

Unusually for this sort of interview-based (as opposed to tribunal-based) verbatim theatre, Hare himself is represented on stage (sadly not by Alan Bennett in a wig). Actually, Anthony Calf’s performance of David Hare is a remarkably good one. There’s even the neat visual gag that he’s wearing exactly the clothes Hare wore on exactly the same stage when performing Berlin. Or perhaps Hare’s only got one set of clothes. But, yes, Calf is so convincing that by about halfway through you’ve almost forgotten it isn’t him who’s irritating the hell out of you, but an uncanny impression of the person who is.

And, to give Hare his due, I think he knows as much and plays with it. The structure of the piece – its subtitle is “A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis” (self-dramatist might be closer the mark, but I digress) – foregrounds his quest for knowledge. In this respect, the piece is almost identical to Berlin. It starts with Hare not getting something, and ends with him concluding that it’s about the death of an idea. I’m looking forward to the piece where he goes about trying to comprehend astrophysics and concludes it’s all about the death of an idea. I mean, really, surely there are hundreds of things David Hare doesn’t understand.

The problem is, David Hare really doesn’t get it. And, because of the way the piece functions, that’s our problem; because he’s up there asking all the questions, effectively on our behalf. And either he thinks we really are very stupid indeed, or he is radically out of touch with the real world. As such, the first half of the play virtually turns into a lecture. At several points a blackboard is even wheeled out for Christ’s sake. Normally, as a critic, it feels slightly silly or ostentatious to have a notepad parked on one’s lap. Here it felt like everyone in the audience ought to be issued with one.

It turns out that the script isn’t by any means the biggest problem. The beginning is indeed rather droll and the rest of the structure is perfectly sound, if pretty much the most obvious way of doing presenting the story. The material, of course, necessarily depends on the acuity or sense of humour of the interviewee. Some are incisive, witty and make good jokes. Lots of others talk in dead language and platitudes and are probably made several degrees more interesting just by dint of being played by actors.

Visually, however – directorially – the piece swings between complete inertia, visual sign-posting of such ludicrous literalism that it’s hard not to conclude it is intended as a joke and some of the worst theatrical kleptomania I’ve ever seen. There’s one sequence practically lifted wholesale out of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, but without either the wit or the warmth. But mostly it’s just men in suits standing around. Sometimes there’s a woman in a suit. Very occasionally there’s a nice stage-picture, and the stage does have an admirably shiny black floor. But that’s about it. The acting is pretty good.

Given how pressing the issues are, it is strange how uninteresting …Yes manages to make them. In a way, it feels like it’s because the whole thing is mediated through “Hare” – this fictional construct of an actual playwright. It’s not about the financial crisis, it’s about his interest in it. And it feels like that’s the thing we should be interested in. It’s about him feeling for us, taking the sins of capitalism onto his Christ-like shoulders and bearing them for us. He gets jolly cross on our behalf, to absolutely no real effect. Perhaps his impotence is also our impotence.

Elsewhere, some of his clever-clever self-reflexivity rebounds rather badly on him. At one point close to the start, one of his interviewees suggests that he’s got a tough job in trying to dramatise the financial crisis, and isn’t it going to be impossible to stage the stock market. I don’t think I’m going too far to suggest that the knowing laughter this elicited was two-fold. One, the intended: “Oh, ha ha, yes, very good, how on earth would one stage the stock market? Ha ha!” and, Two: those who had recently enjoyed Enron and seen an imaginative writer and director do just that laughing at the dramatic irony. Ha ha, indeed.

At another point, Hare is pursuing the arrogance of merchant bankers in a conversation with a (former?) Financial Times journalist. The journalist (here played by Claire Price) asks him “but don’t you also ignore your critics” (or words to that effect), Hare’s response is quite remarkable rage concluding “writing plays doesn’t ruin people’s lives” (again, I’m paraphrasing, the NT really should give away script-programmes rather than charging £8.99 for copies of the text). Actually, the FT journalist seems to have precisely skewered the massive truck-sized hole in Hare’s project. He seems to want to preach some sort of left-ish message, I guess, but the means he’s using are entirely right-wing. Everything on the stage is normative. By chasing a news agenda, he’s already so buried in the system, that he can’t even see it around him. He, like these merchant bankers he so despises, suffers from colossal arrogance and flatly refuses to recognise it.

There’s no doubt that Hare sets himself up for this sort of criticism. Indeed, viewed optimistically, the play’s a piece of self-reproach as much as anything. Having himself portrayed on stage as well as being responsible for the script, does make writing about the piece feel unduly personal. I have nothing against the actual David Hare, who I’m sure is charming and generous, but here he does present himself in a deeply unflattering, and central, spotlight. Less forgivable is just how dull the play is to watch. Sure there are bits of narrative interest, and the stuff with billionaire financier George Soros, charismatically rendered by Bruce Myers, is fascinating. The piece concludes with a rather beautifully rendered dinner between the two in an anonymous skyscraper looking out over the twinkling lights of the financial centre of some major world city or other. While failing to land any particular punch, it does feel oddly, fittingly Faustian. Here we are with David Hare, his concerns, and a multi-billionaire enjoying a glass of mineral water. Lovely. How polite. How informative.


Alison Croggon said...

Hah! I so agree with you. Almost exactly what I felt about Hare's Via Doloroso, only this one was performed by Hare himself. Actually, it's not ideas dying in these things, but theatre.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I don't think enough people have explicitly identified Angus Jackson's direction as a major fault in the production. I mean, leaving aside the foregrounding of Hare, the basic form of the play differs little from The Permanent Way, yet that worked as theatre. And, thinking about the two in comparison, I think a lot of it's down to staging. Much of Max Stafford-Clark's staging of The Permanent Way may have been moving his cast around and composing them for the sake of it, but there is a sake of it, and it's the sake of our interest. Really, all Jackson does is get them on and off the stage, and for something that begins by disavowing itself as a play that's precisely the wrong approach to take.

Anonymous said...

Very witty. And also very evocative: I feel I do not need to see it now. And for that I will be eternally in your debt.