Saturday, 4 August 2018

Theatre review: £¥€$

After becoming a much-talked about show in Edinburgh and touring the world, Belgian company Ontroerend Goed's £¥€$ (pronounced "Lies") makes it to London for a limited guest run at the Almeida. Ten years on from the 2008 financial crisis there's nothing new about a show inspired by it (most recently The Lehman Trilogy took a very different look at its origins,) and the mechanics of how it became inevitable have been explained before; Ontroerend Goed's twist is to try and make the audience understand how bankers could casually risk the economies of entire nations, by turning global finance into an entertaining casino game. The Almeida's seating has been cleared out, replaced by a dozen tables surrounding the room, with the audience becoming players who are led to their table. If you've come to the theatre with someone else you'll be split up, to ensure you're surrounded by strangers and can't second-guess how they're going to respond.

Each table becomes a country, named after the first person to sit at it (we were Las Noahs, playing with yellow chips,) and is controlled by a croupier (Aurélie Lannoy for us) who explains the rules of the game and offers tempting ways to manipulate the market in your own favour.

You have to hand over some real cash (you get it back at the end,) between £5 and £20, each pound translating to a chip worth "a million," then play a simple dice-throwing game where the odds are in your favour. As the game goes on, you get the opportunity to risk more, at slightly worse odds, but with much higher possible rewards, and ideas such as shorting (gambling not only on your success but on someone else's failure) are introduced, as well as Bonds secured against the table's overall funds, which will eventually prove the entire system's undoing. Quite early on, the idea is introduced of a complex loan system in which the entire table has loaned chips to each other, creating a much higher sum in play than actually exists in the table's reserves - a form of financial sleight of hand.

All of this adds up to a system rigged to fail, and I suspect how you experience the show depends on how much you're willing to embrace that fact, and how adventurous your table as a whole is; Las Noahs proved fairly cautious, plus we had one person on the table who kept forgetting the rules, and another who never grasped them in the first place (the croupier had to essentially play all her hands for her) so we never went above a C+ rating - because eventually you end up playing less against each other, more against all the other tables/economies, and the croupiers start running between tables to sell their bonds elsewhere. I enjoyed the game itself but was also aware that I wasn't playing the way I would if it was real: Our table wasn't all that enthusiastic to pay 15 million between us to deregulate the market, but I contributed because it's a scripted show and was clearly going to go off-course if we didn't.

The experience is probably a bit different if you're at one of the riskier tables, especially as the way the game is rigged to fail becomes clear, and some of those tables ended up defaulting on their bonds. There were audible gasps as it became apparent that tables whose economy crashed would have their lights turned off and be kicked out of the game (Fiona Shaw was in this afternoon's audience, and was clearly getting into it as her table narrowly avoided that fate.) In the end £¥€$ is a scripted piece of theatre rather than an actual game and the experience is probably a bit more intense if you can forget that, but even so I had fun and have thought about it a lot since. It's hard to say how well the game itself has matched the mechanics of the crash, but what it does do is put you in the mindset of the people who let it happen, turning the world's economies into a game whose consequences seem remote, until they don't.

£¥€$ by Ontroerend Goed (scripted by Joeri Smet, Angelo Tijssens, Karolien De Bleser and Alexander Devriedt) is booking until the 18th of August at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Thomas Dhanens.

NB: No drink, including water, is allowed at the tables, so in the current heat make sure you're hydrated before going in (at least the theatre is air-conditioned.)

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