Notes From London

Note from London:

Apocalypse and Day of Judgment

David Hare

David Hare, The Power off Yes; a Dramatist Seeks to Understand the Financial Crisis, Lyttleton, National Theatre

Odon von Horvath, Judgment Day, Almeida

The playwright, David Hare, has made himself the protagonist of his new play at the National, The Power of Yes; a Dramatist seeks to Understand the Financial Crisis. In recent years, this left-of-centere playwright has tackled social abstractions, the Law, the Church, the Labour Party, and such dinner party topics as the privatization of the railways in Britain, and the run-up to Iraq war.  This has been done with thorough research and broad sympathy, and generally restrained editorial comment.  He appears this time as The Common Intellectual, rumpled and tousled from much head-scratching.  Since last spring he has, as the subtitle suggests, been applying his now familiar methods to the recent financial meltdown, British version.  He has had at his disposal the formidable resources of the National Theatre, particularly in the form of a large cast of gifted and articulate men (and a few women) made available to be propped up to enliven his story.  Among others, Myron Scholes, of Black-Scholes fame, is present with 80’s red suspenders and blackboard to pitch his fundamentalist faith in the infallibility of mathematical models to manage risk.  Howard Davies, retired chairman of the Financial Services Authority, wields chalk as well, to explain SLUMP; subprime, liquidity issues, unraveling, meltdown, pumping.  Whenever all this exposition risks seeming a bit academic, the National offers the moving lips of Alan Greenspan, 30 ft. high and in triplicate.

Americans in the audience may be relieved and bemused that all this financial mayhem is not exclusively about them.

This theatrical event is fast-paced and riveting, but it is not a play.  It is amusing to imagine an American playwright accepting a similar commission to the one David Hare has chosen to tackle.  This model of this sexed-up lecture from David Hare, might lead a theatrical angel in America to offer a commission to Tony Kushner to write an educational stage presentation on the subject of health care reform in America.

If The Power of Yes is a pageant, not a play, Odon von Horvath’s 1937 drama, Judgment Day, provides everything we could possibly want in a theatrical experience.  It has a gripping plot, sex and violence, vivid characters, melodrama and metaphysics, a trial scene and out of body experiences.  The German village railway station where most of the action occurs has suffered budget cuts, and only the hardworking popular stationmaster still has a job.  He is the target of a determined young woman who finds him more attractive than her stolid fiancé.  She distracts him at a crucial moment, and he fails to set a signal.  The express roars through, and seconds later, eighteen people are dead.

In the investigation, it becomes clear that only the stationmaster and the girl know the truth, and can lie to avoid responsibility.  That is, until the jealously neurotic wife of the stationmaster reveals that she has been watching all the time, and has seen the failure to set the signal.  The town, disliking her, refuses to believe her story.

Support for the lie poisons the town, and draws the characters deeper into a moral abyss.

Von Horvath, writing in 1937, was under constant attack in the Nazi press.  He saw this story as a means to dramatize what the fine translator, Christopher Hampton, describes as “the pretty prejudices and rancorous suspicions of an era of epic mean-mindedness”.  Director, James Macdonald has populated his village with a superb ensemble which embodies all of the above and more.  Outstanding in the fine cast is Joseph Millson as the amiable stationmaster whose fall from grace is both pitiable and terrifying.

The setting, a bare railway platform, behind it a lower level for the tracks and a semicircle of the sliding doors of cattle cars, provides an image of world and underworld, and a queasy reference to the horrors soon to come.  At the end of the play, the platform is transformed into a high trestle where the stationmaster meets the figures of the dead victims of the crash, and must decide weather his judgment is to be of this world or the next.

By Judith Coxe