Play: The Power of Yes by David Hare

Explaining nothing, this play is aimed merely at letting off some steam without getting any nearer to a solution to society’s systemic problems.

Directed by Angus Jackson

Sir David Hare (note the ‘Sir’) is the grand old man of British political theatre. Born in 1947, he has had a great career. After Cambridge (where else?), he mucked around in agit-prop, graduated to being resident dramatist at the Royal Court in London and the equally trendy Nottingham Playhouse, before starting up the Joint Stock Theatre Company.

Since the late 1970s, Sir David has been a mainstay of the National Theatre. His plays are regularly produced there, and he also directs. A prolific writer for screen as well as the stage, and regarded as controversial and left-of-centre by the bourgeois media, none of his work stays in the mind.

One of Sir David’s recent plays, Stuff Happens, featured (as is Sir David’s wont) “real live people”: in this case, George W Bush, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, ‘Condi’ Rice et al. The play was sold as being critical of the invasion of Iraq. Last year, he was accused of antisemitism for his portrayal of a Lord Levy-like character in his 2008 play Gethsemane. He survived that attack, however (not everybody would, but fortunately Sir David’s current wife is jewish), and this year, the National Theatre produced Sir David’s newest play, The Power of Yes.

The theme of this oeuvre is the collapse of the stock market on 15 September 2008. Ouevre is a more appropriate word than ‘play’, as the opening speech given by The Author states. (‘The Author’, a character called Hare, fulfils the role of ‘Everyman’ in the grand tradition of a medieval mystery play.)

The Author character (Hare) opens by telling the audience that The Power of Yes “isn’t a play, it’s a story. It doesn’t pretend to be a play. It pretends only to be a story. And what a story! How capitalism came to a grinding halt. Where were you on September 15th 2008? Do you remember? Did you even notice? Capitalism ceased to function for four days …”

As an opening gambit, it might be arresting, but it is nonsense. Capitalism had a big hiccup, but clearly, not only did it not stop functioning for four days, it functions still, and it will continue to function, come stock market crashes, mass unemployment, overproduction, hunger, outright starvation, repossessions, homelessness, wars, massacres and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, until it is overthrown and replaced by socialism.

However, the ‘What is to be done?’ debate is not a discussion of interest to Sir David, and The Power of Yes is not about a missed opportunity for a revolution, but merely a meandering wander through the various explanations bourgeois economists give each other for last year’s stock-market crash. Proletarians do not appear, even as ‘Noises off’, though one or two of the bourgeois economists do express a bit of nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of old-fashioned mortgage banking, when everybody knew their own neighbourhood banker and all was right with the (petty) bourgeois world.

No one, but no one, suggests an alternative to capitalism.

Sir David’s take on the crash is facile. Capitalism is OK with a bit of regulation, but bankers got greedy and the new Labour government just did not regulate them properly; quite the opposite, Blair and Brown had deregulated. The cry basically being: ‘If only we had old Labour back’!

In The Power of Yes, Sir David’s non-ideas are presented by ‘real-life characters’: Alan Greenspan, (described, would you believe, as a “cove”!) George Soros, Jon Cruddas MP, etc, etc, who all come on stage to deliver a bit of snappy dialogue.

There is a fair bit of self-deprecation and irony. Some of the lines, juxtapositions and timings are genuinely funny, but the whole exercise is reminiscent of Have I Got News For You (The Author could easily be played by Ian Hislop), and The Author is right to claim The Power of Yes< is not a play. There is no plot, no character development, no clash of ideas, and no resolution; there is just cynical humour around a theme. The author is wrong, though, in saying that The Power of Yes is a story: it is a rumination by somebody who does not understand what happened for other people who do not know what happened, but think it was very wrong! So, if it is that empty, why has the National Theatre produced The Power of Yes, and why are people flocking to see it?

Well, for much the same reason that the BBC produced four hours’ worth of programming to coincide with the anniversary of the banking crisis: because capitalism exposed its utter bankruptcy before billions of people, and the subsequent bailout of the banks is a festering sore on the consciousness of many previously steadfast middle-class adherents to the system in western imperialist countries.

Just as in The Power of Yes, the BBC’s Love of Money season took as its start (and end) point, the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank, dealing with the way that subprime lending and the buying and selling of complex debt securities had made almost every bank in the capitalist world vulnerable when large numbers of people started to default on their mortgage payments.

What neither the dramatists nor the documentary-makers have addressed, however, is why the international money markets were so dependent on buying and selling debt. This is the question that cuts right to the heart of the matter, and hence it is avoided like the plague.

The answer, long understood by Marxists, is that while capitalist production for profit has expanded exponentially, with ever-more goods being produced on a daily basis, the mass of the world’s people – those whose work creates all this wealth – have found themselves becoming poorer and poorer, unable to buy these products, which sit festering in warehouses.

This crisis of overproduction is capitalism’s fatal weakness, the cause of regular depressions since the 1820s, which have grown deeper and more acute as the world’s wealth has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. It leads to a spiral of wanton death and destruction, as workers are thrown on the dole, unsaleable products are destroyed, public services are abolished or privatised, and nation states vie with each other over access to cheap raw materials and the few markets that remain profitable.

The dotcom bubble, the stock market bubble and the housing bubble were all symptoms of this underlying crisis of overproduction. With very few profits to be made in manufacturing any more, all the surplus capital of the multibillionaire oligarchs was put to use in gambling on the money market casinos. Meanwhile, subprime lending was seen as a way to get people to keep spending despite their impoverished state.

Any idiot could tell you that no-one can live on credit forever; but when spending on credit is the only thing keeping the economy going at all, it pays not to know what even idiots, provided they are honest, can tell you!

And now, in the service of imperialism, the ‘critics’ and ‘analysers’ are busy trying to persuade us of one thing: the bank bailout was ‘necessary’, not bailing out the banks would have led to some kind of unimaginable calamity, and we are now ‘in it together’ facing the need for ‘tough decisions’ and ‘belt tightening’ etc.

Fearing a political backlash and revolutionary upsurge, the ruling class is very keen for the masses to be sold a story of the crash that makes the points that 1. it’s not really anyone’s fault, and 2. it’s in all our interests to make sure that the banking system stays on its feet.

Roll up the BBC and the National Theatre, right on cue, with their ‘hard-hitting critiques’ that put the blame on ‘greedy bankers’ rather than the real culprit – ie, the very system of capitalism itself – to act as a handy safety valve for middle-class discontent, whilst bringing their audiences no nearer to an understanding of the real issues!

Like the BBC, the National Theatre will only put on a play that even touches on political issues if the play is empty of meaning and devoid of solution (preferably both). This is a great irony when the whole push for a subsidised National Theatre came from the coterie around George Bernard Shaw, that “good man” (according to VI Lenin) “who fell among Fabians”.

Shaw had convinced himself (and a good many other people) that a subsidised, non-commercial theatre could and would present plays that dealt with serious political issues seriously. It was a dream that ignored the capitalist society a National Theatre would still be operating in, and what has happened is only what could have been expected.

Like everything else the earnest, well-meaning quasi-socialists set up in the early 20th century, the National Theatre has been colonised by its enemies. Intended as a forum for genuinely progressive ideas, the National Theatre is, in actualité, a platform for confused and therefore reactionary platitudes.

Sir David’s plays are favoured as he peddles the safest of ‘controversies’. He attacks Bush and Blair but not imperialism, Lord Levy but not zionism, Gordon Brown, but not capitalism. Problems are individualised, not seen as endemic to the system, and for all the ‘challenge’ to the status quo Sir David’s plays offer, the audience might just as well go to a French farce.

So why, if it is so pointless, are so many people flocking to see Sir David’s oeuvre? Good reviews, of course, but, more importantly, what else is there to flock to see if you want any touch of politics at all in your theatre-going?

And at the very least the audience can have the collective experience of agreeing all together in a large dark room “that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark”; and it can blow a collective raspberry at the individuals who have recently been at the helm of the bourgeois state.

It is not much, but at least it feels like something; and to give The Author his due, some of the lines really are very funny.

Meanwhile, the closest he comes to any kind of real insight is in the final line, delivered by George Soros, who, reporting Alan Greenspan’s assertion that “The benefits of the market are so great that you have to live with the price,” replies: “The people who end up paying the price are never the people who get the benefits.”

If Hare had taken that parting quip as his starting point, the play might have had something to say.