x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Credit crunch art

The moment the banking crisis became really serious wasn't when Lehman Brothers went bust. It wasn't even when we all became au fait with subprime mortgages.

Money Never Sleeps going into production was a sign that the banking crises was going to be a serious event.
Money Never Sleeps going into production was a sign that the banking crises was going to be a serious event.

The moment the banking crisis became really serious wasn't when Lehman Brothers went bust. It wasn't even when we all became au fait with subprime mortgages. It was when Oliver Stone called Michael Douglas and suggested they shoot a sequel to Wall Street, in which they could nail the terrible effects of casino capitalism. When this bombastic director wades into a debate - be that Vietnam, JFK, the World Trader Center attacks or George W Bush - you know things have just got worrying.

We jest, of course. But while Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps might not be a particularly adept reading of the credit crunch, the banking crisis of the past three years is proving particularly fertile ground for playwrights, directors and authors. But does this new work tell us anything we don't already know?

Certainly, we're consuming enough credit-crunch culture to suggest we are looking for some answers from our writers. This week, Alex Preston won the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award for his novel This Bleeding City. Both a devastating look at the greed, excess and financial carnage of the City - as London's financial district is known - and an affecting love story, it's not quite the plea for sympathy for poor bankers one might expect from an ex-city trader.

"The thing is, bankers are generically awful people," he told me recently. "That image you get in literature of the cunning manipulator of finance, the great mind... very few are like that. It's full of strutting males, bright guys, for sure, but lured into that world by one thing: the money."

It's a fine read, but it will be interesting to see whether Preston's book stands the test of time. There's the suspicion that as much as credit-crunch culture holds a mirror to our world right now, it might seem terribly dated and irrelevant in years to come. That's certainly the impression one gets from the new play Crash by the Oscar-winning screenwriter William Nicholson, currently enjoying its first run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. While it skewers the emotional effects of the crisis on a banker and his middle-class friends, subtly implicating us all in the failures of the capitalist system, there's essentially no plot and barely any drama. It's simply a well-written play in which Nicholson plays out some of the arguments he's no doubt had with his friends. A revival in 2020 would seem unlikely.

Of course, art doesn't necessarily have to be lasting or timeless to be good. In 2009, the celebrated playwright David Hare was so spectacularly upfront about his take on the events of the past few years, The Power of Yes, he actually subtitled it "a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis". As a response to a commission by the National Theatre in London to "write an urgent and immediate work that sought to find out what had happened", it more than fulfilled its remit - although it was perhaps more journalism than drama. Did it change anything though? Of course not. It merely confirmed what most already knew - that the risk-taking on the markets was incompetent and deluded.

While The Power of Yes was wowing critics last year, Lucy Prebble's satirical take on American capitalism, Enron, was winning similar praise in the UK. And yet it spectacularly failed on Broadway this April - the New York Times called Enron "a flashy but laboured economics lesson" and it closed early. The suggestion was Americans didn't like Britons poking fun at them, but Prebble was always walking a tightrope between the inherently undramatic world of economic theory and the need to entertain. On Broadway she fell off.

So the reason Alex Preston's book has begun to win awards is obvious. The greed of the city might be the plausible backdrop, but it's the skilful way in which Preston handles the turbulent love story which lends This Bleeding City its dramatic tension. Perhaps that's the lesson any writer creating work from the financial crisis would do well to remember.