—Zachary Gray and Ryan Beil in Billy Bishop Goes To War. Photo by Tim Matheson.
THE POWER OF YES
The Power of Yes is English playwright David Hare’s attempt to dramatize the financial meltdown of 2008. Or rather, he attempts to dramatize the explanations for the meltdown offered by a variety of English capitalists whom he interviewed. But Hare doesn’t actually dramatize the explanations in his verbatim script (he uses the actual words of his interviewees and his own responses to them). He simply has a large number of relatively indistinguishable characters narrate their comments on or opinions about the unfolding events, or engage in question-and-answer with his onstage surrogate (played by Bill Devine). This is lazy playwriting, leaving the burden of dramatization to the director, Adam Henderson, who has mixed success with his United Players production, the play’s Canadian premiere.
Hare’s premise is that he wants to interview the people closest to the disastrous events leading to the crash of September 2008 so he can understand why and how it happened. And that’s what his character does. There’s nothing metatheatrically clever about this. This David Hare is no Michael Moore: he doesn’t ask hard or embarrassing questions, doesn’t chase after people who don’t want to talk, doesn’t offer his own uncompromising analysis of the system or the sleaze his investigation reveals. He plays the moderate naïf, claiming not to understand, withholding judgment.
Of course the story itself has its own intrinsic power and entertainment value—part tragedy, part farce, part theatre of the absurd. We learn (or hear again things we’ve heard before) how banks started gambling their investments in new kinds of financial structures no one could understand; how the Allan Greenspans and Gordon Browns deregulated their economies, trusting in “the wisdom of the market”; how even NINJAS started getting home mortgages (“No Income, No Job, No Assets”); how governments reacted after the meltdown by, ironically, heavily re-funding these very banks (“socialism for the rich”); and how, in the end, the perpetrators mostly got off scot-free, immune even to their own consciences: “they just don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.”
Henderson, his designers, and a large, uneven cast tackle the material with admirable energy. Ana-Luisa Espinoza’s set provides a wall of semi-transparent material behind which masked characters write graffiti slogans. The same masked figures, looking something like G20 anarchist protesters, perform clever scene changes with props including a blackboard on which a piggy-bank gets humped by a bull, which then gets humped by a bear, all accompanied by Dave Campbell’s cacophonous soundscape.
Henderson has less success in structuring the narrative itself. As characters emerge onto the bare stage in front of the screen to contribute their bits of information or opinion, they mime some arbitrary action: shooting pool, pouring drinks, watering plants. The actions themselves don’t illuminate character or speak to the economic issues. But they do call attention to themselves in the way that mime often does—not what you want your audience to be thinking about in this show. On opening night there were also some sloppy vocal choreographies, actors inadvertently overlapping each other and their sound cues. This will likely iron itself out over the course of the run but made the show feel under-rehearsed at opening.
All the actors except Bill Devine as Hare, Marisa Smith as a financial expert who leads him through the maze of explanation, and Jason Logan as industrialist Gorge Soros play multiple roles, and we distinguish each of them only by virtue of Alison Raine’s voiceover introductions. Logan’s Soros stands out, as does the work of James Gill—consistently excellent as a United Players regular—and young John-David Papp.
Whatever the limitations of this script and production, David Hare remains one of the major playwrights in the English-speaking world and United Players, to its great credit, his primary interpreter on the Canadian stage.