Lucy Prebble based her current uber-hit Enron on the 2001 bankruptcy of the eponymous US energy company. Theatre collective Shunt have delved further into the history of financial failures for the inspiration behind its new show, Money: the 19th-century collapse of French bank Union Generale.
Presentationally, there are other striking parallels between the two plays. In Enron, battle in a crucial scene is pitched with neon light sabres; in Money, with multi-coloured bouncing balls. In Enron, velociraptors represent complex debt solutions, in Money, a sooty, feathered creature haunts proceedings. And in both, there is the constant monitoring of stock prices, as well as euphoric champagne toasts.
But whereas Enron is fiendishly well structured in its dramatic arc, you never know where you are with Money. It takes its title from Emile Zola’s 1891 novel, on which it’s very loosely based – very being the operative word.
Zola’s story concerns an anti-Semitic financier named Aristide Saccard who, in pursuit of rapid fortune, sets up a bank to fund rail lines and other public works in the Middle East. To prop up the unstable institution, he manipulates the share price via a dummy syndicate that buys up his own stock, but his chief rival, a Jewish financier named Gundermann, learns of the illegal practice and engineer’s Saccard downfall.
Even if you’ve committed the novel to memory, you’re likely to feel lost in Shunt’s retelling. That could be a major failing, but in some ways it’s also a strength because it adds to the disorientating – and oddly hypnotic - effect of the overall experience.
The real star of the show here is the magnificent set. In a tobacco warehouse off Bermondsey Street - not far from the Shunt Vaults at London Bridge, where the group’s last new show Amato Saltone opened in 2006 and its cabaret nights continue to pull in the crowds – Money plays out in a three-story house of industrial horrors. According to the press release, it’s an “abandoned relic of Victorian technology” whose original purpose is unknown.
In fact, it’s an extraordinary design feat, a year in the making. The audience are led in by riot police and, over 90 minutes, with a constant cacophony of machine hisses and groans echoing in the background, we follow the action from level to level, sometimes taking place around us, sometimes viewed through a prism of movable floor and ceiling tiles revealing pools, apartments and other hidden nooks and crannies. Our travels begin and end in a middle chamber with tiered seating, first a sort of Dragon’s Den-style waiting room, later a parliamentary chamber where political fingers are pointed to explain away the disaster.
The mythical machine that we’re touring is also held up by Aristide as the model for the pitch he’s making. So it symbolises at once the past, the present that we’re experiencing and, as Aristide keeps declaring, “the future”. Plus ca change, as both Money and Enron - and the economic disasters that they recount - prove again and again.