David Lister: I seek to understand David Hare

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The Independent Online

There's something that disturbs me about the subtitle David Hare has given to his new play The Power of Yes. It is "A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis."

That is indeed what the play is – a dramatisation of a series of interviews between Hare (or rather an actor playing him) and leading bankers, economists and journalists involved in the crisis. I saw the world premiere at the National Theatre on Tuesday (see Performance Notes below) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps it's more like an exceedingly good lecture or series of lectures than a play. But a good lecture is not a bad way to spend an evening out.

I'm still disturbed, though, by that phrase "a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis". In his previous plays on politics, the church, the judiciary, Hare has not stated that he sought to understand these areas. It was taken as read that, as a cultivated man, he did. I don't think that he would ever say that he was seeking to understand climate change, or seeking to understand sport, or seeking to understand painting, or even seeking to understand love.

"A dramatist seeks to understand why relationships break down." No, I don't think David Hare would have given one of his plays that subtitle.

Yet people in the arts, even the most prominent people in the arts, seem to wear as a badge of pride the fact that there are areas of life which they have never taken the time to understand. Science used to be foremost in that category, though Tom Stoppard's plays on various aspects of science have brought the two closer together, even if few others have followed him in this.

We in the arts, and I include myself among the guilty, are just a little too smug about seeing areas such as science, industry and finance as not worth bothering to master. Perhaps it goes back to those two early divisions of science and arts in British schools, something the International Baccalaureate syllabus, more widely used in Europe, has no truck with.

David Hare, through his substantial oeuvre, can be thought of as one of the country's leading thinkers. Why did thinking about the City of London and finance not occur to him until the National Theatre's artistic director Nicholas Hytner came to him with the idea for a play?

It puzzles me a little. It puzzles me too that Hare's play and to a greater extent Lucy Prebble's fine drama Enron both highlight the greed that caused the financial crisis, with the implication that this greed is to be found only in the financial sector. It is also artists who threaten to leave the country over tax rates; it is the BBC that has had a bonus culture for years, and whose entertainers are paid obscenely high salaries out of public money; it is theatres and opera houses that fleece the public with not only ever higher prices, but also booking fees, handling fees and delivery fees.

The world of the arts needs to look at itself too. There is a danger in thinking that it is not necessary to understand certain areas of life, and in being smug about them when eventually we do.

Access all ages

I wonder if there has ever been an albums chart as varied as this week's. At No 1 is a new band Paramore, fronted by 20-year-old singer Hayley Williams, a girl who is the latest idol for teenagers. Paramore knocked Madonna, an erstwhile idol, off the top of the charts. Glam prog rock band Muse account for a rather different taste and age range. Rappers Dizzee Rascal and Jay-Z account for a few more. Sandwiched between them is something entirely different, Barbra Streisand, pictured. If you think this star, who came to prominence in the 1960s, is as far back as we go, think again. Cliff Richard and the Shadows are a couple of places below, but they are mere striplings compared with the singer at No 10, Dame Vera Lynn.

Has there ever been a top 10 chart with such variation, a 20-year-old at No 1 and a 92-year-old at No 10? Top Of The Pops, instead of closing down, should have switched from singles to albums. What a bizarre show there would have been this week.

Blink and you miss seeing the Bard on the BBC

I wrote last week that I was pleased that my constant urging of the BBC to screen classic drama had found a powerful ally in Sir Richard Eyre, the esteemed former head of the National Theatre, and a former BBC governor. Sir Richard has accused the corporation of a "dereliction of duty" in its neglect of classic drama. But perhaps it was unfair of me not to print the BBC's response to Sir Richard. The BBC pointed out that it had run a "major" Shakespeare season in 2005.

I thought about it and couldn't recall seeing Shakespeare plays on BBC TV four years ago. So I looked up details of this "Shakespeare season". In fact, all the plays were modern adaptations – Macbeth as a chef in a kitchen, etc – all with new scripts. To put it bluntly, there was not one single Shakespeare play on BBC TV in 2005. If a Shakespeare season without a single Shakespeare play is a "major" Shakespeare season, I hate to think what a minor one would be like.