Anders Lustgarten's play begins, promisingly enough, as a dystopian satire which takes us on a darkly absurd extrapolation of the “market knows best” approach to austerity.
A government official (played by Meera Syal) meets with business representatives to discuss a new proposal. The financially burdensome culture of dependency can be eradicated, they decide, by the introduction of “Unity Bonds” that will give the investor a return if the number of people committing crimes or receiving treatment for drug addictions, say, falls to a certain level, thus shifting the cost of social repair (and the incentive to bring it about) to the private sector.
Performed by a game, multi-tasking cast in Simon Godwin's starkly stripped-back 75-minute production, the play moves forward in abrupt jumps as it shows how meeting targets rather than answering human needs is now more than ever the priority. If, for example, the goal is to reduce waiting lists, then “one rather efficient way to achieve that is not to let people on them”, as an old lady (Susan Brown) discovers when she is refused treatment at the hospital where she worked as a nurse for forty two years.
Lustgarten's disgust is bracing as he begs to differ, big-time, from David Cameron who is heard, in a 2012 speech, professing that “where they work properly, open markets and free enterprise can actually promote morality”.
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. A sacked young ex-trader, who is allowed to put up only token-sounding resistance, is treated by the affectionately guyed activists to slabs of Wikipedia on different cultural concepts of debt, including the doctrine of “odious debt” which holds that if the debt has been incurred for sectional rather than national interests, the people aren't obliged to pay it back. But would that cover the bank bail out?
And are they right to see austerity as a con-trick designed to effect a massive redistribution of wealth? Conveniently ending before the debate proper begins, the play never subjects these contentions to sufficiently rigorous scrutiny.
If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep is at the Royal Court Theatre until 9 March, 0207 565 5000.
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