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Edinburgh Fringe 2022



Genre: Theatre

Venue: Pleasance Courtyard


Low Down

Two strangers are offered a million pounds. No strings, no tax even to pay. The catch ? They have one hour to agree how to split it. But everyone’s reasonable, right ?


Negotiation. It’s harder than it looks. Estate agents, brokers, banks, insurance companies, hostage specialists, Governments – people are trained in this art for a reason. The premise in Ultimatum, at first glance, appears to be simple. Two female strangers are in a room with one million pounds. They are given one hour to agree how to split the money. As long as they agree, the money is theirs, with no conditions. If they fail to agree they leave with nothing. The set is minimalist – 2 high-backed chairs, a metal suitcase sitting atop a trolley. A clock runs down the remaining minutes, bringing to mind the clock in the TV series 24. We assume the suitcase contains the million.

Woman 1’s reaction to the situation is visceral – she is elated, excited and immediately assumes that the stranger will agree to the obvious 50-50 division of the spoils. She has adopted a rational position. Woman 2, on the other hand, deliberates. She appears to grasp the intricate nuances of the position and, having apparently allowed the possibilities to land, issues a devastating counter-offer : she wants the vast majority of the money or she will walk. Woman 2 is apparently nonchalant, her poker face intact ; Woman 1 has yet to realise that this is the game. Woman 1, out of her depth here, embarks on an emotional journey, encompassing, amongst others, rage, disbelief, disgust and fear. Prejudices are quickly enunciated, but are they reliably observed ? Is anything what it seems here ? The negotiation begins to be determined by Woman 1’s mental state…now who’s playing games ? All the while, the clock relentlessly tends to zero, crunch time. The audience are aware, the tension becoming palpable, dramaturgically the stakes are high.

Treehouse productions make a fine stab at this representation of The Blackmailer’s Paradox. Many themes emerge : class, entitlement, empathy, morality, game theory, vulnerability, mendacity, bullying, physical threats and manipulation. Abbie Murphy as Woman 2 is adept at allowing thoughts to land, juxtaposing game theory with touching vulnerability. Natalie Durkin’s  Woman 1 is that of a woman raging against unfairness, her stance being a metaphor for her life in general, for society even. Her resentment of Woman 2’s avarice, having stated that she is an investment banker, is perhaps allegorical to the U.K.’s revulsion of banking bail-outs. There are moments of electricity from her performance, although Durkin’s emotional transitions sometimes were arguably too rapid and her heightened state at the outset of the scene gave her a bigger challenge to subtly show an emotional journey. But these are minor points in a fine Fringe show.

It may be tempting to dismiss the events within Ultimatum as fiction, as mere contrived theatre. However, Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet that the function of art is to hold up a mirror to nature. Now consider this within the context of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” regarding Brexit ; countless Arab-Israeli discussions ; the Northern Ireland protocol etc.. A highly entertaining show with wide societal relevance.