Review: ‘The Power of Yes’

'Power of Yes'

A lucid, mostly cogent PowerPoint presentation with live actors.

It’s all there in the labeling. “A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis” is the subtitle of David Hare’s new work, “The Power of Yes,” and in case we’re in doubt, the opening line is “This is not a play.” Instead, Hare has edited together snippets of interviews from key figures in the 2008 collapse of capitalism. It’s a lucid, mostly cogent PowerPoint presentation with live actors, but the sound that fills the gleaming, almost empty black stage is that of Hare having his cake and eating it, too.

Having hosted Hare’s vastly superior “The Permanent Way,” his verbatim theater indictment of the British rail network, and “Stuff Happens,” his intriguing Bob Woodward-esque recounting of the run-up to the Iraq War, the National Theater smartly commissioned the playwright to investigate the events around Sept. 15, 2008, when world banking went into freefall.

The commission is not dissimilar to when the Royal Court sent Hare to Israel and Palestine. But even those who disagreed with his views in the resulting “Via Dolorosa” had to admit to the power generated by the playwright himself presenting his thoughts. Here, however, Hare is at one remove, archly renamed the Author.

It’s a thankless role, played with dignity by Anthony Calf, who spends most of the evening looking puzzled and patiently asking the who, how and why to 23 key financial players and commentators.

Neatly choreographed by director Angus Jackson and usually identified by an announcer, they step into the light to present their views, analysis, explanations and, in some cases, defense.

Hare has relied upon Masa Serdarevic, a 23-year-old financial expert hired by the National, to explain the workings of finance to him and, in the form of actress Jemima Rooper, to us. She talks him through financial models and helps guide his research.

Through her, we are introduced, for example, to Malcolm Sinclair as Myron Scholes, illustrating the Scholes-Black algebraic model for no-risk pricing that underpinned all the craziness of hedge-fund investment. But, ultimately, that’s all it is: an introduction. We don’t engage because we don’t know who these people are, and only a very few of them return: Each person delivers his or her necessary snippet and is then dispatched.

Another problem is that in contrast to “Stuff Happens,” which successfully took in the big U.K.-U.S. picture, this time Hare’s research is inadequate, possibly due to limited access. Key figures are missing. The clearly unreachable Alan Greenspan only makes it in via reported speech. The result is oddly tilted toward the playwright’s own country. You don’t have to be American to wonder why Britain is the dominant focus when the rest of the world points the finger at American investment practice.

Late in the production, the temperature rises a little when the Author expresses anger to an unnamed journalist (Claire Price) about what happened and how people behaved. But it’s too late to go down the line of dramatic engagement.

What happened to our money, and our entire political and philosophical structure, is a self-evidently urgent question that theater is rightly addressing. It’s mildly depressing that Hare’s journalistic approach mimics the British insurance company copyline from the 1980s: “We won’t make a drama out of a crisis.”

The Power of Yes

National Theater/Lyttelton, London; 898 seats; £35 $56 top


A National Theater presentation of a play in one act by David Hare. Directed by Angus Jackson.


Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Paule Constable; original music, Stephen Warbeck; sound, John Leonard; projections, Jon Driscoll; production stage manager, Al Parkinson. Opened, reviewed Oct. 6, 2009. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.


The Author - Anthony Calf
With: Julien Ball, Ian Bartholomew, Richard Cordery, Jonathan Coy, Mark Elstob, Paul Freeman, Ian Gelder, John Hollingworth, Bruce Myers, Claire Price, Jeff Rawle, Christian Roe, Jemima Rooper, Malcolm Sinclair, Peter Sullivan, Nicolas Tennant, Alan Vicary, Simon Williams, Lizzie Winkler.

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