Practical criticism: boys in the banks
If we can all put to one side the dread making itself at home in the hollows of our stomachs, it's time to begin looking at world events like a critic. Not a critic of economics or politics, mercy no. But a drama critic.
Yes, my friends, we're looking (nervously, through our fingers) at images from the world's stock exchanges and banks, and using our experience as theatregoers to read the crisis. You'll probably have way more insights than I do (what does a monkey know?), but here are a couple of thoughts to begin with. I'm talking costume, and I'm talking a facial expression that doesn't often get attention.
You don't often see the global financial system on stage. Its bottom-feeding level - unsympathetic landlords, rent-collectors, commission-hungry salesmen - stipple classic American drama from Miller to Mamet. But the big beasts of the banking sector usually pull the strings way offstage (or, in 1920s plays like Treadwell's Machinal or Rice's The Adding Machine, we see the system embodied in expressionist style). To find a pack of slavering stockbrokers, you must look back to Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, written in delirious rhyming couplets at the helium height of the 1980s. This was also the era of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, and neither film nor theatre have subsequently sealed portraits of feral finance that are even remotely as memorable.
The city-boy's braces (red for brazen emphasis) were the uber-emblem of the 80s, but the current crisis wears grey. Men and women, whether clinging to their banking jobs or just shown the door, wear suits in black, grey, charcoal, slate and grey. If the defining images of boom showed people gesticulating madly on the trading floor in implausible bright jackets or hot-hot-hot shirtsleeves, the current financial is about people in sober suits. They cluster like walking shadows in the fallout of Lehman Brothers. They form dark puddles of smokers, trading rumours outside their offices.
What can we make of them? Join me after the click:
Anne Hollander's Sex and Suits (1994) remains a primary text tracing the development of the suit - from dandy's black through to the signifier of conservative masculinity. It is so pervasive in the current news footage, however, that it becomes bound up with the crisis: as if we all put too much faith in the suit, that if we dressed like credit-worthy individuals, then we would slot into an accompanying life. And we trusted the guys in suits too, as if financial nous and responsibility were conferred by the dark sleeves and discreet buttons. Now, all those suits on the streets whenever the camera crew arrives at another institution in crisis seem incongruous, responsible clothing that masked irresponsible time, a uniform for a disbanded army.
As for the principal emotion on display? Dismay. It's an emotion rarely foregrounded on stage, which prefers showier stuff. Though just last week I watched it spread over Jocasta's face (as played by Clare Higgins, looking like a battered jaguar) in the National Theatre's Oedipus. Listening to her son-husband scrabble for the truth of his origins, unable to dissuade him, she's transfixed by dismay. It's a still, silent emotion, a growing response to a situation beyond your control, and it's on a lot of finance faces on the news. People worried about their jobs, worried about their futures, waiting without optimism. It isn't tragedy, but something more troubling - people who don't know whether or not their lives are ruined but who suspect the worst.
As for banking choreography, that's still too. Not the jabbing, windmilling frenzy of the 80s. Merely people looking baffled on the City of London pavement, or traders staring dumbfounded at their screens as if willing the graphs to change direction.
Okay, that wasn't the most upbeat beginning to this series. And, since you ask, I don't feel any better now. But what has the monkey missed? What else should a critic see in scenes from the crisis? Over to you...
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