Originally written for Exeunt.
“I really love that they’re the colour of gold.” Writer and director Clare Duffy is speaking about the 10,000 pound coins that she will soon be bravely putting on the stage of the Bush Theatre for MONEY the Gameshow, a piece asking meaty questions about money, the financial crisis and how we understand value. Deliberately eschewing the familiar image of floods of crisp bank notes, Duffy thinks there is something even more profoundly seductive about the materiality of pound coins, something deeply rooted in the way we think about money.
“Why aren’t they purple?” she grins at me across our table in the Bush cafe. “Why aren’t they striped? It’s so interesting how profound that symbolism is, because although we all know it’s not real gold, we like the fact that it’s gold coloured and shiny; it hearkens back to a folk memory of gold standard, when money was directly linked to a standardised value.”
Putting those 10,000 round, shiny objects on stage has a history and a whole host of problems. The idea first arose from an earlier play of Duffy’s, in which a couple put a pound coin in a jar for every day they spend together and are then faced with splitting the amassed sum after their break-up; when it was performed, Duffy placed 500 pound coins in the centre of the playing space, prompting the realisation that this immediately shifted the way in which these objects signify. “What happens when it becomes a prop?” Duffy ponders. “Does it still feel like it has that value? And what kind of performances does it demand from the audience?”
When she won the Arches New Director’s Award in 2011, Duffy identified a way of posing these questions, deciding to put the £6,000 prize on stage and use it to tell the story of the financial crisis. Through the experience of presenting scratches of the piece and developing it again for the Bush, Duffy’s feeling that the environment of the theatre changes the nature of the money on stage has only intensified. While money typically relies on a shared belief in its value, Duffy observes that “when you put it inside a theatre, which is a place of make believe, it sort of becomes something else”. How does an object that is already engaged in a mimetic act – standing in for a value that it does not embody but only represents – transform under another layer of representation?
The money on stage is also influenced by the necessary mechanisms that surround it; as the £10,000 used in the show is a loan, the theatre has had to install CCTV cameras and a security guard to ensure that no audience members are sneakily slipping coins into their pockets. Rather than considering it an irritating practicality, however, Duffy has creatively seized on these intrusions, describing them as “both real and not real at the same time”. It is through such external structures, she believes, that the central notion of money is upheld. It follows that perhaps through revealing and disturbing such structures we might be able to interrogate and displace that notion.
This process of interrogation and displacement is just what MONEY the Gameshow sets out to achieve. Led by two hedge fund managers turned performance artists, played by Lucy Ellinson and Brian Ferguson, the audience are divided down the middle and given the piles of pound coins to gamble with, placing bets and competing to win. The purpose of this involvement, Duffy explains, is to draw the audience into the adrenalin-drenched world in which such individuals operate and to make them complicit in that irresistible excitement.
“You’re given a stake in the risk of the story,” Duffy continues, “aligning the risk of the games with the risk of the story. Because that’s what the story is about, it’s about playing a game and winning or losing.” The story that runs alongside these games is the story of both the former hedge fund managers and the entire financial crisis, tracing the factors that led to collapse and the state of extended resuscitation that has followed, stubbornly reviving what Duffy calls a “zombie economy”. We have all played a losing hand, but we’re still trying to hold onto our chips.
Duffy believes, however, that the current crisis is as much of an opportunity as it is a disaster: “What’s exciting about now and about talking about money now is that anything’s possible and the most crazy ideas should be talked about”. Throughout the process of making the show she has spoken to a number of individuals from the world of finance that she is depicting and has been surprised by the openness of some of their attitudes. “Politically we’re probably coming at these things from very different points of view, but there’s a convergence point,” she says, suggesting that this location of convergence is born from our present state of crisis. “Interestingly, it creates a space where people from really radically different points of view and walks of life can actually meet and talk.”
Getting people talking is, as Duffy recognises, the first step towards any change, but there are a number of barriers to that conversation. As Duffy observes, the financial industries are constructed to keep people out, fenced with technical jargon and barbed with complexities. “It seems to be to be so important and yet so little understood,” she says, admitting to her own ignorance prior to the research undertaken for the show. Her hope is that, as well as shifting audiences’ perceptions of money and value, she can simply make them feel more comfortable talking about it.
The idea of talking about money inevitably leads us into the territory of how money is discussed within the arts. This is a thorny subject, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by cuts, where the effort to defend the arts is often weakened by internal disagreements about the rhetoric in which that defence is to be mounted. Duffy is of the opinion that those working in the arts should take up all the arguments at their disposal.
“I think you just have to make the argument every which way you can, as much as you can,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of value in making as watertight an economic argument as you can. There’s an expression: making your argument in your master’s language. Sometimes you have to make the argument in terms that the people in power will understand or accept. However, at the same time you have to realise that you’re seeding power when you do that, so you have to be making that argument in another way. You have to fight on as many fronts as possible.”
The concern, as I say to Duffy, is that the eloquent economic arguments that are being put forward by some will be at the expense of the arts’ intrinsic value. If we succeed in binding the arts to measurable economic outcomes, this monetary worth quickly becomes the only value that can be ascribed to them. Duffy sees it, however, as a distinction between short term and long term solutions. “Short term sometimes it’s worth making that argument, it feels appropriate to make that argument, but at the same time you have to be making the more important point,” she suggests. Proof of economic worth might win the battle, but it is the search for a non-monetary language about value that is key to the longer term struggle.
“And that is what the show is really passionate about,” Duffy persuasively concludes. “It’s about asking the question: what is money?”
Photo: Simon Kane