'Austerity' seems to have swept through Europe and beyond like some financial bush fire, spreading economic woe pretty-much wherever it is implemented. In the UK we seem to have avoided, at least thus far, the worst excesses of this tough economic medicine, whereas in Greece and Spain the effects on ordinary people have been catastrophic and those effects may well last for decades. This short play – written by Anders Lustgarten and with a running time of just 75 minutes (without an interval) - aims to provoke us into evaluating the notion of austerity and to consider whether what is being done by politicians in our name is really having the desired effect.
The play opens in a conference where a new privatisation scheme is being floated to leading financiers by the government. The idea is to draw-in market forces to monetise social dysfunction, violent crime, addiction and the culture of dependency. The proposition on the table is that private capital will be used to lower crime and the like, in return for a financial reward dependent on performance. We then see some of the effects of this on ordinary people, particular a pensioner who is forced to have a payment metre installed in her home to pay off her tax. And we see the same pensioner being refused medical care in a hospital because, after the involvement of the private sector, the best way to reduce waiting times is not to let people join queues in the first place. We also see racial tensions flare when young white men blame immigrants for taking their jobs, and we find nursery teachers unable to call on social services for help because an extra case would put them 'over their incentives'. Later, we meet an action group comprised of some of the characters we met previously.
This is a 'production without décor', which essentially means that the action takes place on a bare stage with a few scaffolding poles to mark out the acting area, and the odd clothes rail which store the costumes. A small, but talented ensemble of 8 actors realise the characters, and the play is well-directed by Simon Godwin. There is a smattering of humour, and some of it borders on the farcical, especially when the scheme to monetise crime and social dysfunction is discussed.
Mr Lustgarten does make some sensible points, particularly about public finances. For example, he quite rightly baulks at the notion that a government should act like a household and always balance its books. Of course, in the medium to long term, that is a sensible plan, but governments have the power to print money, so they can use that capability to pump funds into the economy stimulating economic activity and employment. So, it is perfectly sensible and right for governments to spend and borrow more when economic activity is low, in order to stimulate output and provide employment. He also cites international law and the UN Charter, which specify that full employment and social and economic welfare takes priority over everything else, including debt reduction. On the other hand, I found Mr Lustgarten's description of 'bonds' rather less satisfying and factually accurate.
In the end, the play is not so much about austerity, but more an examination of the role of capitalism and markets, and how decisions and activities in these areas ultimately affect the lives of ordinary people. Though the play succeeds in its aim to make audiences think, it is not sufficiently hard-hitting, or scathing enough to provoke anyone into taking meaningful action. In any case, most people do not understand the way markets or financial institutions work, and this play will not make them very much wiser in that department, I don't think. An interesting, and well-intentioned idea, though.
"But this author's skills as a polemicist, seemingly a stranger to self-doubt, still far exceed his talents as a dramatist, as is exemplified by unabashed clumsiness of the long final scene where of a group of activists in a squatted courtroom prepare to put the entire capitalist system on public trial. Lustgarten is right to castigate the cosiness of much political drama but this play operates within a comfort zone of its own."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"The urgent arguments, shaped by a distaste for the cosier sort of liberalism, aren’t melded into a cogent drama. These people are mouthpieces. And the play is structurally awkward, not least when it stops abruptly, just as it’s beginning to get really interesting. "
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard
"It lasts only 80 minutes but still grotesquely outstays its welcome. "
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"While the play has bags of vigour and offers a bracing attack on financial capitalism, Lustgarten tries to cram too much into 75 minutes and rarely offers the dramatic satisfaction of intellectual debate."
Michael Billington for Guardian