Features Essays Published 23 July 2015

Shock Therapy: Theatre and Economics

Michael Bryher, director of Dumbshow's new show Electric Dreams, asks whether it's possible to make theatre about economics.
Michael Bryher

Would it be possible to make a piece of theatre that explored the current Greek financial crisis, or is it just too complicated? Over the past few weeks, there have been a dizzying variety of diagnoses of what has happened, of why, and of how to deal with the fall-out – many of which profess to be the definitive analysis. If the artist’s role is to synthesise and reflect the troubles of the age back to the audience, could these arguments be condensed to make a tasty evening of theatre? And even if you narrowed it down, is theatre the best medium to explore such complex circumstances? Or do you risk creating a bone-dry experience for an audience in trying to do them justice?

I’ve been thinking about this recently because Dumbshow will soon be premiering a new show called Electric Dreams, which is based on the ideas in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. The Shock Doctrine explodes the myth that neoliberal free-market policies have triumphed across the globe democratically; Klein cites many examples where countries in trouble have had swingeing cuts and privatisations forced upon them in return for relief from the banking institutions such as the IMF – or in this case the European Comission and the ECB. Suffice to say, the current situation in Greece could easily be the subject of a new chapter in Klein’s book, as its story fits this narrative almost perfectly. Despite a resounding rejection of the bailout offered by the troika, ordinary Greek people are now undergoing economic shock therapy they didn’t vote for and didn’t cause.

I’ve seen the situation grimly described several times as a “Greek tragedy”, but – ironically – is the whole thing too complex for theatre to tackle? And further to that, is it possible to make a play about economics at all? Does the dialogue have to argue about wages, exports, imports and fiscal policy? Would the audience need to be good at maths? And don’t you need a degree from Harvard to speak authoritatively about such things – don’t you need to be an expert?

When we stared to make Electric Dreams we visited a professor at Warwick University who, within the first five minutes of our meeting, said that The Shock Doctrine was “schoolboy economics” and asked why we were wasting our time on such tenuous rubbish. Suffice to say that he hadn’t actually read the book, and he was a psychiatrist not an economist, but his breezy dismissal was disarming. Who was I to try and make a piece of theatre based on these ideas? I’m no economist, what do I know?

Well, if I’m a schoolboy, I’m the stubborn kind who answers back.

Firstly, one person’s schoolboy theories are another’s Nobel prize winning perspectives; writing in the Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz echoed Klein’s analysis and suggested that punishing austerity wasn’t the only option. Secondly, whether correct or not, Stiglitz is only expressing his opinion, for economics is not a science. No matter how authoritative vox-pops on the news sound, they are predominantly opinions. Writing in the Telegraph, Liam Halligan says that claims about economic “certainties” and “findings” are “bunkum” and that actually, economics “is a study of human behaviour” – which, to me, sounds strikingly similar to theatre.

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So if it’s not about science and evidence, but rather a study of how people relate to each other, then maybe theatre is the perfect place to do economics. In all of the pseudo-scientific reports and arguments about what is happening to Greece, the effects on real people are often forgotten. Theatre puts people at the centre; it uses actual bodies to tell stories, and nowhere else could the effects of economic policies and the morality of their implementation be more manifest, or more sharply portrayed (as Beyond Caring so brilliantly achieved at The Yard and National Theatre).

Theatre may also be the best place for exploring our current situation because it doesn’t offer one perspective. At its best, it allows different world views to collide and invites the audience to judge for themselves. If the people of Greece hadn’t begun to stand up for themselves, our press would have undoubtedly continued to repeat the mantra of last two governments: that the state had overspent, and so punishing austerity was the only option – an idea so often repeated it is now the orthodox line. But as we have seen, enough people now acknowledge that it isn’t the only option, that there might alternatives and we should explore the possibilities that they offer. These aren’t just technocratic questions about financial theory, but moral questions about the kind of world or society we want to live in. Maybe we could resist the economic shock therapy that is being thrust upon all of us …

So the answer for us was not only that we could make a play about economics, but that we had to. We had to make a play that engaged with and reflected the world as we saw it, and perhaps challenged the status quo. As artists it is our job to clarify or contrast ideas so as to provoke thought; to offer new ideas, or even old ideas in a fresh-minted way. If economics is really about how society is organised and the way we are governed, then it is not only our right but our obligation to explore it with all the passion we can muster.

Electric Dreams is at Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh 5th-30th August.

Photos: Camilla Greenwell.

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