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The soul of man under anti-capitalism

Anders Lustgarten’s new play is too committed to fair trade and ethical shopping to realise its agitprop pretensions.

Patrick Marmion

Topics Culture

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Could it be that we are witnessing the rebirth of that most pungent, proselytising of all art forms, ‘agitprop’, at the Royal Court Theatre?

Anders Lustgarten’s new play, If You Won’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, on the Court’s main stage is in response to the continuing global economic crisis that is now entering its sixth year. The production certainly looks like agitprop, walks like agitprop and barks like agitprop, but it’s also doing something a bit more besides. It revitalises the genre by tracing and denouncing the all-pervasive reach of multi-national capitalism. His name for this strategy is ‘anti-prop’, demystifying the language and market ideology that is capitalism’s outward form.

The play takes its title from a slogan adopted by anti-capitalist protesters in Spain and is set in the very near future. It starts with a group of power-broking business people in a workshop hammering out a plan to extend privatisation of the public sector. Schemes include ‘monetising’ problem families ‘at a profit to investors and no cost to the public’. The idea is to use bonds so that if crime rates drop to a certain level investors get a return. As one character, played by Meera Syal, says, ‘It’s all about harnessing the incentivising power of the market’. Lustgarten then takes a jaunt through the whole of British society showing how this works out, with ingenious cost-saving strategies such as cutting NHS waiting lists by not admitting people into hospital in the first place.

The fact that no one knows what these business people are talking about is part of the point. The first real laugh comes when one businesswoman who’s made her fortune manufacturing innovative chocolate asks, ‘what is a bond?’. She is amusingly ignored with a round of laughter and is too embarrassed to take it any further. It’s a really sharp moment in Simon Godwin’s brisk production that cuts to the heart of the matter: no one really understands anything, including the people purveying these brilliant corporate fixes. They don’t know anymore than they did that the banks were going to collapse in 2008 because they preferred not to look too hard at NINJA loans (‘No Income No Assets’ loans initially called ‘subprime mortgages’). They simply believed that the success of these financial packages was guaranteed by complex computer programmes designed by Harvard mathematicians. Like the Titanic, they couldn’t sink.

All the same, some of Lustgarten’s characters are also suspiciously articulate, including the retired nurse who laments the way people treat each other ‘like threats’. But overall, Lustgarten is careful to exercise a staunch solidarity with his characters, feeling their pain and rejoicing in their warm-hearted, sometimes goofy forms of resistance. Borne on a tide of public indignation, the characters range from boardroom manipulators to the underfunded nusery workers, but they all converge on the campaign headquarters of a small cell of disaffected protesters. His plot bends plausibility with a series of coincidences, but his central conflict is between a reformed white racist and a Zimbabwean immigrant he stabbed. The Zimbabwean is now a health and safety worker charged with shutting down the protesters’ HQ. His Brechtian moral dilemma is whether to take personal revenge or secure the greater good of society with a leap of faith.

At this point the play ends, handing the audience an ethical and political cliffhanger – just when things get interesting. Lustgarten should perhaps have written a second act exploring such dilemmas and the way we are all blindly embedded in the matrix of the notionally free market with its logic of highly constraining necessity. The need to act in line with this is a fiscal imperative and social responsibility. Instead of exploring such murky waters, the play as it stands paddles in the shallows of fair-trade tinkering, allowing the idea that you can change the world with ethical shopping. One protester is told off for getting coffee from tax-dodging Starbuck’s and Tory faith in the free market is denounced simply by quoting David Cameron. There is no attempt to address the neocon battle cry that free markets have historically delivered people from poverty and ill health.

However, Lustgarten does write a very striking introduction to his play in the published script, and he is careful to reproach leading figures of the Labour Party and centre left for participating in this political consensus by taking non-executive directorships in big businesses. Here, he gets closer to the way that the market establishes itself as the only show in town and becomes a totalitarian compulsion. In particular he floats the idea that austerity is not really about fixing the economy. Instead, he claims it is about ‘fundamentally reshaping not just government but our basic understanding of what it means to be a member of society in order to serve the needs of financial markets’. He goes on to envision the free market as an insatiable zombie ‘chomping on people’s lives’.

The shame is that these radical ideas in Lustgarten’s introduction are not fully pursued in the play. He is suggesting that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in our self-understanding that manifests itself as a tendency to align ourselves with market forces and see them as a force of nature. In a world where stock exchange fluctuations are reported like the weather, we are all too eager to see ourselves now as auditable digits on a vast social spreadsheet. This is partially represented in the spectre of business language that demands performance, competition and renewal in all walks of life.

There is something intriguingly spooky and uncanny about David McSeveney’s sound design, which recreates the aural wallpaper of the modern world with the sound of clicking keyboards, murmuring personal stereos and distant sirens wailing. But instead of getting a shocking vision of mutilated human beings, we get fairly traditional characterisation, including Meera Syal’s turn as a veteran protester who is a cheerful old hippy rather than a noisome misfit. There is also Damien Molony as a young Irish radical whose motivating anger is sweetened with lazily affable charisma. Most complex is Lucian Msamati’s warmly sympathetic Zimbabwean, who is also embittered by his violent experience of immigration.

More trenchant would have been a satirical vision of what Oscar Wilde might have called ‘the soul of man under capitalism’. This could have provided a fuller vision of the ways in which market ideology dominates and possesses us all – winners and losers. Such a move could have taken us beyond the typical agitprop antimony of the big bad ‘haves’ exploiting the poor downcast ‘have-nots’. And on this point it is worth remembering that if George Osborne and big business executives really do believe themselves to be acting as cynical manipulators of the downtrodden, they are surely also oblivious to the ways in which they are themselves glove puppets of the market. But if being a free-market ideologue is a manifest form of zombiedom, it behoves us to track down other forms of automatism, such as devout adherence to political correctness. The language of the marketplace today extends from football stadia to the treasury, while personal branding covers sexual, religious and even national identities.

How you represent this merging of consciousness and the market artistically is almost as tricky as setting out how we might emancipate ourselves from it politically. However it could be that the two are related. It could be that there is a synergy between the creative power of art and the possibility of seeing ourselves as different kinds of beings. More than just instruments of capital, or credit card-touting zombies.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent.

If You Won’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep is at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1 until 9 March

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Topics Culture

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