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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Scripted by Joeri Smet and a team of three including director Alexander Devreindt, Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed’s £€$ (Lies) explores the banking system as a casino. Nick Mattan’s tenebrous design darkens counsel. Astrid Peeters’ clone-costumes the black-clad company. All to the boom and cymbal-crash of Johannes Genard’s music. Till August 18th.


So we’ve been here and the title’s hiding in plain sight. From The Power of Yes and Enron to the sell-out Lehman Trilogy currently playing at the National, our decade-long obsession with create and crash from nothing endures until as director Alexander Devreindt puts it we might ‘one day, make a revolution happen.’


Only we haven’t been there. Because we’ve not been tempted. Till now. Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed’s £€$ (Lies) gets an audience to cash into their chips. I mean literally, empty your pockets, and that’s what you have to invest, £1 standing for a £1m. If you haven’t any someone is asked to lend and two of our number got £10 and £5 respectively. I and another had a lowly £2 coin each, the max allowed was £10. You’ve been warned. It’s Monopoly but – you’ve heard of casino banking. It’s brilliantly simple. Then casino banking it is.


This isn’t an unprecedented theatre, for instance. Rob Drummond’s The Majority recruited the audience as voters at the National last year. Oliver Kingston and the Collab Ensemble’s For King and Country at the Collab Factory in May, went for immersion: an audience converted to the sole MP survivors in December 1940: fast-moving German invasion, Lord Halifax resigning as PM, military and civil advisors plus spy. £€$ (Lies) is even cleverer, making metaphor flesh and in its incredibly tight working-out, working us.


Entering into the brick-stripped Almeida you’re guided to one of ten crescent-shaped gaming-style tables (Nick Mattan’s tenebrous design darkens counsel beautifully) where in Astrid Peeters’ clone-costumes one of the black-clad company greet you. Groups are broken up, seven at a table who don’t know each other and you’re a country. Embarrassing, this. First in, it was named after me. Simonstan. Seven banks. And a roll of the dice to the boom and cymbal-crash of Johannes Genard’s music. Be very… anxious. It takes a sharp ear to hear that the seventy who enter very gradually reduce.


First lie is that you’ve any kind of control though you make all the decisions. Scripted by Joeri Smet and a team of three including director Devreindt, thirteen actors speak to you as implacable croupiers (they won’t give names) and guide you to the banking ethos of fractional reserves. We start with our counters, we’re sold bonds, bonds form other tables, derivatives. Mergers with each other are suggested. And we’re constantly reminded of our rating. We’re a C. The aim is A plus and one bank has made it there. As it happens after an age of C, we soar.


It’s all chalked up on a revolving board like the old stock market used to be, black save the colours of each table’s counters (yellow, orange..) and the names of countries. Gamesters’ solidarity kicks in, group-think takes over. It’s about trust and confidence in each other, in the world’s banking infrastructure because it’s all in this room. The higher your rating, the more your bonds are worth to you and on the open market. You buy an upcoming bank, hope their bonds will yield. You can even bet on ‘shorting’ the bad roll of someone else’s or your own dice; in other words hedge-bet on loss. Oh, and you pay little things like taxes, 20%, pesky grudges like social security, water, medical provision. Don’t you just hate them? One did straight away, volubly.


And chance wealth rolls with the dice, what counters you win or lose. Make a mistake and you’re given a ‘naughty’ red dice – interestingly the two most cautious, one Almeida regular and myself, are upbraided for accidentally playing with investments and not capital. Oops.


Far more interesting traits emerge. We nominate one of our table to confer with other nominees at that Bourse-like centre table, and we unanimously choose the man who questioned paying taxes. Financially versed he and the other most confident player merge – since when you both roll a dice the higher score’s counted and you can’t fail, you’re too big. Merger costs £15M so little people need not apply.


A lot more happens; you’ll have to see what. Simonstan was happily diverse: four women, three men, three of us BAME – I was the only white male. Two women also merged and here’s the interesting thing. Two who borrowed from zero came up as charismatic mergers. The great financier was one and he and his partner came away with £35m each (some elsewhere walked away with infinitely more), the other mergers £19.5m each; I and the equally cautious lady to my left who found it all distasteful emerged with £16m and £15m respectively with no losses or debts. But the young woman who didn’t speak a word and who came in with £2 like me made £30m without merging and seemingly vulnerable. No-one remarked on this. She’d had a big loan via me via the markets (impelled by our croupier), we two being lowliest early on; but that doesn’t explain chance or shrewdness.


By the end of this you’ll know far more about the banking sector than even Robert Peston explains. If anyone objects to it as metaphor, go see The Lehman Trilogy if you can. Lehman Brothers was simply chosen out of several as the bank to fail because the CEO was disliked and made dicey decisions. It’s all here; that’s as much of a spoiler as you’ll get. Though fractional reserve indexing is referenced, it isn’t enlarged on technically but broken down if rapidly into coherence. There’s no jargon. Now go and play them for a fool. You may lose the shirt on your back but you’re too big to fail. You won’t regret it. Oh and you do get your small change back.