Alcopops, racism and financial dystopia

Meera Syal (Jen), Susan Brown (Joan), Ben Dilloway (Tom), Damien Molony (Ray) and Laura Elphinstone (Kelly) Image copyright Alastair Muir
Image caption A grassroots protest movement occupies a courtroom to put bankers and the financial system on trial in Lustgarten's latest production

Paul Mason catches a new play at the Royal Court inspired by the financial crisis, which paints a picture of society on the brink of breakdown.

"What actually is a bond?" asks Lucinda, chief executive of a designer chocolate startup, in Anders Lustgarten's controversial new play at the Royal Court.

It's a good question, and one the Royal Court Theatre is in the right place to answer, surrounded as it is in Chelsea, by numerous upmarket drinking joints full of people who look like they might have spent the day trading bonds.

Lustgarten's play - If You Don't Let Us Dream We Won't Let You Sleep - is Brechtian not just with a capital B, but a loud and guttural "ch" as well. By commissioning it, the theatre has thrown down something of a gauntlet to the newspaper reviewers, who didn't much like it.

In the play, a cabal of civil servants and city types comes up with a plan to securitise the welfare state: to issue "Unity Bonds" against the success of privately-run prisons, rape crisis centres, hospitals and the like. This "transfers the risk to the private sector" and it of course then fails.

Once he's created this dystopian premise Lustgarten pursues it through various hospital wards, rowdy football pubs, stabbings and police cells to draw a picture of society on the brink of breakdown. Ultimately this summons up an Occupy-style revolt, whose own confusions are explored in the second half of the play.

Audience reactions at the Royal Court have ranged from cheers so loud they've disturbed the other theatre based there, to a kind of grim faced awe on the night I saw it - which was possibly one of the nights when bond market people in the audience outnumbered Occupy people.

Ever since the financial crisis started I've been wondering at what point it would begin to have an impact on drama. We've had, early on, attempts to do on-the-fly reactions to the Lehman crisis - such as the short plays at the Soho Theatre, London we covered on Newsnight in 2009.

David Hare's The Power of Yes, Lucy Prebble's Enron, and even the National Theatre's reworking of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens all managed to cover-off what you might call the dysfunctional power-relations of the boardroom. And with Margin Call (2011), even Hollywood managed to capture the essence of what went wrong in the world of bespoke suits and Maseratis.

But Lustgarten's play is not about high finance. It's about financialisation - the power that modern, complex financial systems have begun to exert over our daily lives. For, as Lustgarten points out, many of his dystopian, futuristic scenes are based on reality in collapsing, peripheral Europe. He tells me:

Image copyright Alastair Muir
Image caption The multi-tasking cast of eight, which includes Meera Syal (right), portray about 20 characters

"The most striking thing about the audience reception of this play is even its most fervent supporters don't realise it's all real. Everything in the play has either happened or is in the process of happening. The debt tax and the girl abandoned in the kindergarten happened in Greece. Unity Bonds, better known as social impact bonds, are being trialled in several places… This isn't dystopia; it's a news report from 2015."

Lustgarten's play draws heavily on one of last-year's buzz-books: David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5,000 Years". Whole chunks of Graeber's argument are there in the script: debt as a coercive power; the concept of odious debt, to be repudiated under international law; the inevitability of the "haircuts" countries like Cyprus are on the point of taking.

By the end of it, even the dumbest among us will understand something of the workings of debt and its derivatives.

Ultimately Lustgarten's scenario is far fetched: the deliciously named City guy - James Asset-Smith - starts "shorting" the bonds he's helped to design. That is, he takes a bet not on the success of the welfare state but its collapse. Though technically possible in any financial market, this is, Lustgarten admits, poetic licence.

But - and here is what gives the play a relevance beyond its immediate intent - what is shocking is that, by the end, we believe that it could happen.

Lustgarten is intentionally moving beyond a traditional left-wing critique of banking and finance. It's a kind of Brecht without the class struggle - and many of the disgruntled victims he portrays are the formerly prosperous. He says:

"Financial capitalism steals too from the middle classes, those who've always played the game - the tripled uni fees, the unpayable rents - without creating any obvious value, social or financial, in return. And you can't annoy and mug that many people, the backbone of bourgeois Britain, and get away with it for that long."

Watching the audience react to Lustgarten's in-your-face play, it becomes obvious that even the well-heeled types are prepared to believe society contains people like James Asset-Smith, people who despite the best of human intentions are driven by the logic of finance to do inhuman things.

And to use the language of self-deception.

When a disillusioned Lucinda confronts the civil servant who designed the scheme, pleading for government to stop it, she replies, to gasps of recognition in the audience:

"I'm no longer in government. An opportunity arose in the private sector, where I felt I could do more good."

When a hospital is forced to start turning people away at A&E, the administrator tells a patient:

"We can't make provision for you".

Like all dystopias, the power of this play is that it shows how mundane and casual a descent into the abyss might look, and with what familiar bureaucratic language.

This is what makes it a signal play for its time: because it is this massive distrust of finance, and of the political influence of high finance, that has become real, pervasive, almost second nature to many people now, in pub conversations - whether over a £12 bottle of wine or a £3 alcopop. Contempt for bankers and politicians, the belief that the latter would sell their souls to the former, is pervasive in popular culture and this play captures that spirit well.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the play is where three young men, fuelled by alcopops in a pub, mount a racist attack. Says one:

"Go up London. Africans in big headdresses swanning out of Harrods. Chinks in ****ing suits and ties, stuffing their faces in posh restaurants. Arab ****s ….Everyone's got a piece of the pie except for us and I am sick and ****ing tired of it. Nobody in this world gives a flying **** about you apart from the people round this table."

In this one scene Lustgarten demonstrates an ear for what's happening in parts of Britain, and how the relentlessness of economic crisis - even if it is no longer sharp or deep - eats away at people's hope, patience and decency.

I've tried to understand the way the economic crisis has worked its way through the theatre, movies and the visual arts. The significance of "If You Don't Let Us Dream…" is that it's the first high-impact play about the crisis, staged at a major theatre, where the action has moved decisively from men in suits to men in trackpants.