The MT Diary: Seeing myself on stage, and some expensive risotto

David Hare puts me on the London stage, and Milan's fashionistas take over La Scala.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's odd to watch oneself on stage. That was my fate at the National Theatre opening of The Power of Yes, David Hare's play about the financial crisis. (Anyone who understands the title, by the way, should write in).

The play was conceived, as it were, in a debate at the LSE about the extent to which novelists and playwrights engage with the business and economic issues of the day. I'd remarked when judging the Booker Prize two years ago that only one of 110 novels I read was set in a business context. Nick Hytner, the director of the National, got to hear of this argument and commissioned Hare to write a play about the financial crisis, so I only had myself to blame for being an early port of call.

If you agree to be interviewed on the record, on what can hardly be described as a good news story, you have to take what comes. Some of the things I said may now seem, up in lights, marginally less witty and pertinent than they did at the time. But, even so, I preferred to be identified, rather than to be the 'junior Bank of England official' - actually rather a senior one - who says disobliging things about the Governor, and about the FSA, behind a cloak of anonymity.

As I left the regulatory scene four years before the crisis erupted, my own role was essentially expository. For teaching purposes at the LSE, I had devised a five-act Shakespearian tragedy model of the crisis, which provides a big part of the architecture of The Power of Yes.

It is not straightforward to capture the evolution of a complex systemic crisis in dramatic form. The device Hare has chosen, with a questing playwright at the centre of the action, gives a varied cast of characters an excuse to put their version of events. It may lack dramatic tension, but there are well-established precedents for an 'Everyman' type of enquiry. There are echoes of Pilgrim's Progress, or even Peer Gynt.

As all the words are those of the cast of real characters, the exercise stands or falls by the quality of what they have to say. And that is, frankly, uneven. Predictably, most of the principals declined to talk, on the 'never apologise, never explain' principle. To fill the gaps, there is a banal City head-hunter, a nostalgic corporate lawyer and a harrumphing captain of industry (pompous enough to decline to be named).

They add far less to the story than do George Soros or Ronnie Cohen. Soros is clearly the star of the show, and probably deserves to be, given the intellectual energy (and indeed the money) he is investing in trying to construct an alternative theory of capital markets to rival the one whose weaknesses have been so painfully exposed in the past two years.

Does it all ring true? Well, on balance I should say it does. There are simplifications - how could there not have been? At the end, Everyman remains perplexed about how it all went so terribly wrong. There are some not very penetrable observations about the motivation being 'the thing itself' and not just the money. But, overall, this is theatre doing what it should. It is a traumatic story and a dramatic evening in the theatre.

Hytner's gamble has paid off better than most of the financial bets that the play describes. I expect the tickets to be so sought after that a futures and options market in them will develop in the trading rooms of Canary Wharf.

And yet I cannot help recording one serious complaint. Jonathan Coy (who plays me) really needs to join my gym. My lean and hungry lines are far too well padded on the Lyttelton stage.

It was a relief to escape to Milan, where fashion week was under way. I, of course, was there to discuss the state of the capital markets, and paid no attention whatsoever to the exotic fauna in the hotel lobby. Insofar as I noticed, I registered that they were all over six feet tall, and size four. Pneumatic bliss was off the agenda.

Milan is both tres a la mode and curiously old-fashioned: young - and not so young - men with slicked-back hair, stepping out of smoky-windowed Mercs with women on their arms who look 'no better than they should be', as my mother would say. The crowd at La Scala (a business evening, you understand) was nicely tricked out, but monochrome and monoglot, looking at each other lovingly over the Prosecco.

Tiresome, though, to find that some of the art galleries had been taken over by fashionistas. Art lovers were turned away while the paparazzi clicked adoringly. And the food and drink are not what they were. I asked for a Punt e Mes, which always seems the right thing in an Italian bar. Blank looks all round. 'Is it a whisky?' the barman asked.

A bowl of ravioli in the hotel restaurant (Park Hyatt, since you ask) involved four modest parcels spread out on a small plank, a courgette flower and a generous helping of what felt on the teeth like sand. Next door at a so-called caffe, a small bowl of risotto with white truffles was delicious, I must admit, but was EUR11.66 a forkful.

Mervyn King's laudable attempt to rebalance the British economy by talking the pound down is putting such gourmet extravagances out of reach of anyone but Goldman Sachs traders in a good year - as this one surely is, for them. It's the power of GS - perhaps that is what Hare is struggling to explain.

- Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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