Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed gives the audience a thrilling taste of the trading activities which led to the 2008 meltdown, writes Laura Plumley
£Y€$ (Lies), playing at the Almeida, performed and directed by the Belgian group Ontroerend Goed, is essentially a morality play which uses the audience as the players. The theatre has been changed into a gambling casino with 10 semi-circular gaming tables, at each of which sit seven stools. On entering the auditorium, we are greeted by one of the cast, dressed all in black, and shown to a table at which sits another cast member, or croupier, who acts as our financial guru, watch-dog and government. The tables are representative of make-believe countries and the audience members are the banks in that country. Each country is given a name. Each seventh of the table is a bank with a trader on the global markets. The job of the croupiers is to keep action on the tables moving, occasionally advising us, the bankers. Our job is to make money.
This is certainly interactive and immersive theatre. The initial reaction is one of curiosity and hesitancy as we started off as traders in tangible assets – steel, housing, oil and gas. But as time went on and as the trading gong rang out loud and clear, the profits grew and our incentive to make money drew us into ever more inventive and fantastic financial products. The key to this game was to make money, albeit, relatively legally because all players had to pay tax, and were given a warning if they didn’t abide by these tax rules. However, any cautiousness in strategy early on became boring as the play progressed. There was clear competition between banks, which therefore encouraged more ingenious, riskier methods of making money. Our credit ratings went up (or down!) regularly as the central rotating tower in the auditorium systematically updated.
And then the bubble burst. Players called in their debts and loans and four banks collapsed, with only one bailout possible. And so we had the repetition of the 2008 financial crash. We had become completely obsessed with the profit motive within the space of two hours.
This is by no means a ‘Lehman Trilogy’, nor does it have the detail or humour of ‘The Big Short’, but the strength of the show is its immersive quality, drawing the audience into the active, exciting role of decision-making. These decisions, or the roll of the dice, make or break millions of lives.
Ontroerend Goed is a Belgian theatre collective, founded in 1994, which developed from a Ghent poets’ collective to the theatre group we see today. They are well known for pushing the boundaries of the traditional theatre medium. This has meant they have produced all kinds of experimental performances. In this instance, the Almeida is perfectly transformed into one of the sleazier type of gambling dens. The company has received several prizes for their work but they remain essentially an experimental, fringe company, which aims to shock audiences.
The director, Alexander Devriendt, has cleverly ensured that the frisson of a trading floor dominates the proceedings with a rotating central tower, showing each country’s global rating, total amount of money in each market and exchange rates. Although none of the participants in my ‘country’ were actual bankers, our croupier ensured we all experienced the addictive adrenaline rush as we quickly grasped the myriad ways to invest other people’s money. The big difference here is you get your money back!