The Power of Yes, National Theatre, January 2010

In Spring 2009 the National Theatre asked David Hare to write a play about the financial crisis precipitated on 15th September 2008. That was when the US Government rejected an appeal to rescue Lehmann Brothers in New York, and liquidity between banks collapsed. The result is this play about a writer trying to get to grips with what happened and why. He has meetings with numerous experts and important players, including that magnificent Hungarian guru, George Soros, who tells us how he learned from his father all about the Russian revolution, a lesson he never forgot. Things can go suddenly very badly wrong, defying the self-professed experts, who can’t imagine that the worst-case scenarios will ever happen. This is backed up by another of his interlocutors, David Freud, a government advisor who now works with the Conservative opposition, when he mentions his father leaving Austria in 1938, the year of the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. By contrast many of the bankers were unable to see what was coming because of a lack of historical perspective, and in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland boss, an acquisitions geek named Fred Goodwin, couldn’t see anything beyond their own aggrandisement.

The powerful people who attract the most contempt are the previous British Chancellor of the Exchequer — now Prime Minister — Gordon Brown, and to a slightly lesser extent the previous Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, with his zeal for Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged. The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King also attracts a few negative comments, but otherwise the author’s interlocutors come over as sensible, intelligent people who were caught up in events beyond their control. David Hare has constructed a play that gives the audience a nuanced insight into what happened and why, and it should be required viewing for anyone who thinks it was all simply a question of greed.

Most of the performance took place on an empty stage, with only the occasional chair, and at the end two chairs and a long table, to disturb the clear telling of a story. It worked very well, with a large cast headed by Anthony Calf as the author. He was entirely convincing, as were the other actors, some of whom appeared in different roles. The exits and entrances came fast on one another, giving the story drive and urgency. I liked Bruce Myers as George Soros, and he has the last word in recounting a conversation with Alan Greenspan in Zürich, when he flatly contradicted Greenspan’s airy optimism. Perhaps the man who invented the phrase “irrational exuberance” had a little of it himself.

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