Sainsbury Theatre, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, 4th June 2019
Last minute jaunt to Hammersmith to see one of LAMDA’s summer season offerings. If there are times when you start fulminating about paying close to a ton for a cramped perch in a dingy West End mausoleum, then can I recommend again the end of year productions from London’s top notch drama schools. A ticket, a programme, a snack and a drink and still likely change from a pony, all supported by professional creatives and maybe with the chance to see the next big star of stage and screen.
Especially if you have a yen to see a particular play. In this case, for the Tourist, a reminder of just how good a play Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money is. We have had the slightly underwhelming, but still wonderful, revival of Top Girls at the NT earlier in the year, and we have a new, now quartet, of shorts to look forward to at the Royal Court come September, but London’s major houses have not, to my knowledge staged this play in the last few years. Which is daft given its continuing relevance and the fact that it is, trust me, highly entertaining.
It is, to be fair, of its time. Its time being 1987. It is now over three decades since Big Bang revolutionised London equity markets, during which financial capitalism has run riot through the global economy. Global capital (debt and equity) stock now totals well over USD 200 trillion up from around USD 30 trillion in 1987. The notional value of global derivatives contracts is well over USD 500 billionn and some might have you believe that it is actually over a quadrillion (thats 16 zeros). Take comfort the gross value of the contracts is “only” north of USD 10 trillion. But the fact is no-one knows and when this goes tits up it is going to hurt you even if you have absolutely no idea what this involves.
Open outcry on LIFFE, (London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange), which is the setting for part of the play, may be long gone, with the electronic exchange now part of a global network, the financial regulatory functions of the DTI, (Department of Trade and Industry), handed over to successor organisations, Brexit probably means the British Government doesn’t have time to bump off dodgy stockbrokers and I doubt anyone plays Pass the Pigs anymore.
Otherwise CC’s satire, in terms of behaviour and consequences, is still pretty much spot on. Fear and greed still drive market “volatility”and worse. That is baked into the DNA. That has been true from the beginnings in the C17 as CC shows at the opening of SM with the extract from Thomas Shadwell’s 1693 Restoration comedy The Volunteers or Stockjobbers. A few years years later in 1720 the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles brought European economies to their knees. Pretty much every decade since then markets have imploded. It’s just that the numbers have got bigger and bigger. No capital markets means no growth though and none of the lovely things we all prize but now the global body politic is hooked on the free money which the “independent” central bank pushers have no choice but to supply. Which only underwrites today’s equivalents of all the naughty boys and girls who toss away their moral compasses in Serious Money.
The play opened at the Royal Court in March 1987, was in the West End by July, (where the Tourist first saw it), and New York by November. In between, on 19th October, we had the Black Monday global crash. CC looked prescient. Not really. She just identified the nature of the system and set about puncturing it. Mercilessly. Surprising really given how far CC is normally ahead of the curve.
At the turn of the C20 stock markets collapsed again following the bursting of the dot-com bubble, in 2007/08 the grandiloquently named Global Financial Crisis arrived which you may have heard of, there was the flash crash of 2010 and then another sell-off through 2015/16. At the end of last year markets tanked 20%. Did you notice? Thought not. I seem to recall ever Her Maj had a pop post the GFC asking why no-one had warned of the pending catastrophe. Ma’am. They did. Not enough people listened. Until they finally did. Markets, never forget, are driven by largely excitable people acting “fast” pretending they are clever and thinking “slow”.
Playwrights, as CC’s reference to Thomas Shadwell shows, have been on to this story from the off. Indeed you can go back further, to the Restoration city comedies, and Ben Jonson for example. There isn’t much about the behaviour of the characters in SM that BJ didn’t nail in Volpone and The Alchemist. However punters, and reviewers, do get a bit antsy about all the jargon it seems in these entertainments. True of SM and, moreorless, true of more recent forays into the “financial markets” genre such as Enron, Labyrinth, Dry Powder, Other People’s Money, The Invisible Hand, Other People’s Money, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho. And that’s just what I have seen in the last few years, (and can remember). To which I respectfully suggest, find out. See above. This stuff matters to you. That is partly what CC is trying to say. Interrogate don’t abrogate. It’s often, one way or another, your capital these punters are playing with.
“Financial” plays also usually come with ambiguous morality baked in. Writers, in seeking to avoid killing plot and drama with one-sided polemic, (I am making the assumption that no-one is in the market for writing a play which celebrates financial capitalism), try to offer up “rounded” characters. Which makes sense. Behaviours in markets may turn venal, and markets themselves need close and careful regulation, but, generally, the people in them are not “evil”. They are just like you and me. Well I confess me. They are there because they are clever and lucky. The paradox between, generally, the determination of the individual to be “good”and for structures, forces and processes at the societal level to turn “bad”, is as acute in a bank as it is in government or down the pub on a Friday night.
Which also can mean the actions of the “heroes” in the financial play, or more obviously film, think Wolf of Wall Street, can become a cause for celebration for some. CC tried to get round this by making everyone in SM a c*nt in some for or another, by having 20 named characters, (even managing 6 women in this macho world, who are all flawed), overstuffing the action, there are 24 scenes across the 2 acts, and incorporating song and dance. Apparently this didn’t stop entire floors of investment banks pitching up to the original production. Whilst individuals may just be “doing their jobs” the cultures they create and the rewards they enjoy have, over the last few decades, ended up near the top of the aspirational pile. Markets are addictive for participants such that they cannot see the world outside. Markets are opaque for non-participants, making it easier just to reject them. This is not healthy.
Anyway back to SM. CC is rightly lauded for her imagination and innovation of dramatic form. And for the breadth of her practice. For me though she is also a genius because she is so clever and learns so quickly. SM is filled with detail, not just about how things work, that’s not too difficult, but more in the understanding of what motivates this array of characters. As usual CC gets straight to the heart of things with the minimum of dialogue. Whilst presenting that dialogue as rhyming couplets in a nod to the past and to reflect the rhythm of markets. If there is a better summation of a market when the shit hits the fan, (and that still happens even in a quant and liquidity driven electronic trading world) than “Sell! Quick! Prick! Yes! No! Cunt!” then I haven’t heard it.
And this all comes with a proper plot. A detective story of sorts as Scilla Todd tries to uncover the facts behind the mysterious death of her brother Jake. And CC doesn’t hold back on the innovation. The first contemporary scene after the Shadwell opening takes place in three locations simultaneously. Greville Todd, old school broker, buttering up a client. Scilla, a rare women salesperson on the floor of a post Big Bang bank in London and her slimey sexist colleague Grimes, and brother Jake on yet another floor, broking with his sales and trader colleagues.
Next the champagne bar. The dialogue of the pissed nails the aspirations of the young and greedy, Then US banker Zac explains, clearly and succinctly, how the stock market changed post big-Bang and the scions of UK merchant banking sold out to the US behemoths. And how, within the US banks the traders, who make the money pushed the bankers, who carry the prestige, aside. Less than 15 minutes in and this crucial change in the direction of Western capitalism has been nailed. In verse.
Next the hunt where we see Frosby, the disgruntled old guard jobber who shops Jake when he passes insider information to Marylou Baines, the arbitrageur with comic assistant TK, based in NYC. We learn that Jake was being investigated by the DTI and was worried he was in too deep. We then meet Corman, the private equity raider, taking a tilt at Duckworth’s company Albion, his various advisors, white knight Biddulph, Peruvian Jacinta happy to sell out her country for a few quid, improbable cocoa trader Nigel, a US business patsy who is wheeled in to take out Corman’s company and finally a UK politician, stepping in to stop Corman’s “vote-losing” take-over.
The plot is, in the manner of the Jacobeans, deliberately a little tortuous. Yet the stagecraft that CC employs makes it easy-ish to follow. And the characters are stereotypes. That is the point. It is satire. Everyone is greedy. Everyone wants more. CC shows that there is never “enough” for players in a market. Someone always gets more. The “game” is all about the winning and revenge is served piping hot. “Truth” is elastic and just part of the armoury. Even Scilla, who is closest to a conventional character who “changes” through the play, gives up investigating her brother’s death to take up the offer from Marylou. CC doesn’t stop with financial markets, stuffing in the abuse of power by the DTI and a shadowy MP into the mix. Media and advertising gets a slap as well.
It is fair to say that, with all these riches, the setting, the message, the Brechtian alienation, the jargon, the flashbacks, (dead Jake keeps popping up), the lack of resolutions, the absence of redeeming qualities in the protagonists, (there are no romantic consciences taking on this corrupt world on behalf of the audience), the multiple dialogue, the often daft couplets which ape the commodification and financialisation of the “real” world, the sheer, accelerating pace of the action, that some audiences might lose their bearings. I think this is partly deliberate. After all those on stage have lost theirs.
In this production LAMDA spared us from significant doubling which can really vex some. Of course the perennial problem of such productions is the age of the actors but, in Serious Money, given its unreality, this is less of a problem. As usual it is unfair to pick out individuals but, arm twisted, I would post to Ryan Burch as Zackerman, Ivan Du Pontavice as Corman, Colm Glesson as Greville Todd, Elizabeth Hammerton as Scilla, Emma Lauristan as Marylou Baines, Charlie McVicar as Jake and Joe McNamara as TK.
I was mightily impressed with the direction of Emily Jenkins who is also, I see, a playwright, who definitely deserves my attention. Serious Money, as you have probably surmised from the above is not an easy play to put on. This wasn’t perfect but it was a very convincing account and Ms Jenkins surely takes much of the credit for this. As do Assistant Directors, I assume from LAMDA, Thea Taverner and Mariagrazia La Fauci. And designer Adrian Gee wisely struck with all the trappings of 1987. SM requires no updating. Its universality stems from its very particularity.
I couldn’t tell you which is Caryl Churchill’s greatest play. Mostly because I haven’t seen them all. But this will always been near the top. It is very funny, breathtakingly theatrical, bitingly intelligent, brilliantly inventive and always urgent. And the kids here did her proud.