Economical drama
Julia Farrington: Should David Hare take tips from the Theatre of the Opressed?
01 Oct 09

Augusto Boal invented forum theatre, also known as the theatre of the oppressed, in which touring theatre companies go into communities to perform plays about an issue that affects, and in most cases, oppresses the community. The plays end badly, realistically in other words, leaving the bad guys in control and the community powerless to do anything about it. Then a “joker” (a facilitator from the theatre company) invites people to think up different endings — if the community had been better organised, or found themselves a spokesperson, or found strength in numbers by talking to neighbouring communities — and to come on stage and act out more positive outcomes.

It is a major player in giving voice to the voiceless, encouraging people first to imagine and then express what seemed unthinkable. As such it’s very interesting to Index on Censorship which in the main supports individuals who speak out in hostile environments, while Boal’s method in its more evolved form — legislative theatre — provides the means by which ordinary people can collectively speak truth to power.

Watching David Hare’s new play at the National TheatreThe Power of Yes made me think of the theatre of the oppressed. The story of the so-called death of capitalism, the four days in September 2008 when the banking world stopped breathing — was played out in front of the well-heeled community of central London — a community that is both oppressed by and complicit in the story.

David Hare himself is the main character — an everyman figure who like everyone else, including most of the bankers as it turns out, doesn’t understand what the hell happened. He personifies our ignorance, disbelief and moral outrage as he interrogates the lead players in the debacle. The characters on stage are the real people, with their own names, speaking their own words. Stressing from the start that this is a story, not a play, it is more like very classy, high-budget theatre in education piece or journalism in motion.

In a nutshell: if “capitalism works when greed and fear are in balance” then what happened was fear was taken out of the equation by a Nobel-prize winning economist who invented a crazy four-line mathematical formula that only computers could understand which explained risk and therefore banished fear so greed-crazed people with dollar signs burnt into their eyeballs took on too much risk and the system crashed.

Men in suits come on and off stage giving their version of events, while David Hare pulls his hair out in exasperation and incomprehension at the banality and amorality of the protagonists. My friend said she would rather have read it than sit through it (two hours, no interval) but we agreed that she wouldn’t have. And that’s the problem; mention the words subprime mortgages (exploiting the poorest people in the housing market for gain) or bonds backed securitised loans (helpfully mimed out by the cast giving each other small bits of paper) and most people glaze over. But with the aid of great visuals, strong acting and a pretty 23-year-old Bosnian woman, the Power of Yes was a useful crash course in economics for someone who never reads the business pages.

However he missed a trick. Hare just left us with the bad ending (George Soros has the last word, saying that the people who pay the price are never the ones who reap the benefits — hardly revelatory) without calling on the audience to think what we can do about the horrific farce we had just seen. Augusto Boal demonstrated the power of the theatre to transform, that the answer to the problem lies in the creativity and imagination of the people watching the play. David Hare doesn’t acknowledge that the crisis continues, that our new understanding of what happened could help us bring these greedy bastard bankers to account as they scramble to rebuild their monstrous, defamed institutions. The audience gave the cast a rather desultory round of applause and left, better informed but more depressed than ever at the ghastliness of human kind.

I am not expecting David Hare to provide the answer to the economic crisis, nor for the National’s audience to kick off their shoes and jump on stage. But as a playwright he could have acknowledged that the audience have a role in this drama. That is Boal’s point, it is our story, it is ongoing and we have a part to play. The David Hare/everyman figure is a bit of a mouse. Have the fat cats got our tongues as well as our money?

By Julia Farrington

Julia Farrington is an associate arts producer at Index on Censorship