David Hare’s “urgent and immediate” response to the world economic meltdown, specially commissioned by the National Theatre, received its world premiere last night (6 October 2009, previews from 29 September). The Power of Yes, subtitled “A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis”, runs in rep in the NT Lyttelton, where it’s currently booking until 10 January 2010 (See News, 17 Jun 2009).
On 15 September 2008, capitalism came to a grinding halt. As sub-prime mortgages and toxic securities continued to dominate the headlines, last spring NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner asked Hare to respond with a play that sought to find out what had happened, and why. The resulting piece is based on interviews with key financial figures, including George Soros, as well as journalists, academics, politicians and regulatory officials.
The premiere production is directed by Angus Jackson and is performed by an ensemble cast including Anthony Calf, playing Hare “The Author”, Jeff Rawle, Jemima Rooper, Ian Gelder, Claire Price, Malcolm Sinclair, Richard Cordery, Jonathan Coy, Nicolas Tennant, Peter Sullivan and Simon Williams.
Including The Power of Yes, David Hare has premiered 15 original plays at the National to date, including Stuff Happens, The Permanent Way - both also based largely on interviews - Amy’s View, Skylight, The Secret Rapture, The Absence of War, Murmuring Judges, Racing Demon, Pravda (written with Howard Brenton), Plenty and last year’s Gethsemane.
Coming just a fortnight after the London opening of Enron, The Power of Yes was inevitably compared with Lucy Prebble’s play about that earlier financial collapse – and not always favourably - by overnight critics. While all appreciated Hare’s ability to “doggedly” ask “important questions” and “offer a clear, combative analysis of this mind-knotting, epoch-making mess”, many felt shortchanged by the evening’s lack of drama. Hare himself readily acknowledges that The Power of Yes is a story rather than a play; verdicts as to whether it succeeds as such seem to depend largely on one’s stance toward the validity of “theatre as journalism”.
Judi Herman on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “If anything, Hare tells two stories, both absorbing and indeed amounting less to a play (it’s fittingly subtitled ‘a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis’), more to reportage ... Anyone in the audience not in the world of finance ought to be instructed and shocked by turns as they make the journey to ‘enlightenment’ with the Author. Thanks to director Angus Jackson’s strategic marshalling of his superb cast of 20, the journey is almost physically invigorating as well as intellectually ... Hare’s version of the story ... ends with the sobering thought that the economic future of the world is down to China. If anyone comes out of The Power of Yes well, it is at one end of the scale the financier and philanthropist George Soros (a beautifully studied portrayal from Bruce Myers) and at the other the young Sarajevan researcher Masa Serdavic, the Author’s guide and amanuensis (a simple and ultimately affecting performance by Jemima Rooper), who came to this country and to the world of finance when her own world fell apart.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Few ask around quite so diligently or effectively as David Hare. If he wasn’t an award-winning playwright, he’d be an award-winning journalist ... When it comes to finding things out and telling us the way the world works, Hare is in a class of his own ... The play provides us with a great deal of hard information and expert explanation. As drama, however, it is hard going. There are so many facts and opinions, so many actors (a score of them) playing so many different real-life characters, that one’s brain sometimes threatens to go into the cerebral equivalent of financial meltdown. A distinguished cast do their best to bring a cast largely consisting of men in suits to individual life and Angus Jackson’s production is admirably lucid. But in the midst of all the debate and number-crunching I found myself longing for the dramatic bravura of Lucy Prebble’s Enron which turns financial calamity into thrilling theatre rather than a hectoring lecture.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “The presence of Hare in the shape of a faintly perplexed, note-taking Anthony Calf is crucial to the story. At first we see him bombarded with advice as to how he should go about his business ... Spurning all this, Hare simply goes about doggedly asking questions ... And what does he learn? Firstly that the current crisis has complex origins ... This sounds technical stuff. But Hare brings it alive ... by asking the questions to which we all want to know the answers ... If Hare's story comes to a predictable end, it also takes us on an intriguing journey. It explains the causes of the financial crisis, gives flesh to theories, and introduces us to a vast gallery of characters. Angus Jackson's production stages the piece with great fluency and contains fine cameos ... Some will say this is theatre as journalism. But, if part of journalism's mission is to explain and inform, that seems to me a virtue. And what you gain, by seeing the piece performed, is a sense of Hare's mounting anger at the vanity, self-delusion and sheer incompetence in which the world of finance is steeped.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (two stars) – “If there's an English dramatist who could be relied upon to offer a clear, combative analysis of this mind-knotting, epoch-making mess, it's the author of Stuff Happens and The Permanent Way. Pessimists will have spotted a faint potential flaw here. If our pre-eminent political dramatist had been gagging for this important gig, he'd surely have been down the line to Hytner first. They will also have noted that share prices in the project took a tumble this summer with the advent of rogue trader, Lucy Prebble, author of the uber-hit Enron, a play which seems to have cornered the market in flamboyant prescience and in the ability to explain the fiendish con-tricks of creative accountancy with dazzling theatrical immediacy.
So where does leave The Power of Yes? Gazumped, bothered and bewildered? Not quite. But, in truth, it's looking a tad tardy and more than a mite dogged and dutiful ... This piece is not so much a play proper as an artfully arranged dramatisation of the research that could have led to one ... (Hare) has given us a sort of Everything You Wanted to Know About the Credit Crunch, But Were Afraid to Ask. It's honourable, lucid, tenacious, and a little dull.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “A National Theatre should tackle national issues, and that is certainly what David Hare’s new play does, dutifully auditing the economic turmoil of the past two years ... Over the course of just under two hours we are treated to a procession of opinions ... All the while Hare asks questions — some naïve, others probing. The explanations are contradictory and complex, littered with references to arcane practices and their proponents ... Looking like a youthful version of Hare, Anthony Calf holds proceedings together confidently, and there is nice work throughout the company, with Jeff Rawle particularly engaging as a counsellor from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau ... The real problem is that it proves so diffuse. We feel we are on a whirlwind tour of the boulevards of finance; the byways are left unexplored. Characters are shunted onstage, prosaically introduced, then withdrawn. The drama lacks a true emotional centre and a decisive argumentative punch. Questions are raised, but not properly answered. Still, as one expects of David Hare, they are important questions.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “If David Hare’s new piece is compared unfavourably with Enron, it would be unfair yet fair. Unfair, because Lucy Prebble’s play transforms America’s worst corporate scandal into a vivid case study of greed, folly and deception, while The Power of Yes is conscientiously true to its subtitle, ‘a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis’ ... But the comparison is also fair, because one wishes that Hare had also given us a bit of human drama, adding (say) Adam Applegarth, who is accused of neglecting his job as Northern Rock supremo for a lady called Randy Mandy; or (better) Fred Goodwin ... Hare is careful not to parade his left-wing conscience, letting the capitalists ask questions of capitalism and only near the end bringing on a Citizens’ Advice Bureau chief to tell us of the impact on the poor. That’s self-denying. But then, as he gently admits, Hare keeps his own money in a Post Office account.”