Serious money play
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Block Reference: #0d98a640-2f02-11eb-97b0-535aa53b1c34
Date and time: Wed, 25 Nov 2020 09:39:03 GMT
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Back with a Big Bang
“Sell! Quick! Prick! Yes! No! Cunt!” In a rehearsal room in South London eight actors are putting the finishing touches to a musical number from Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money, which opens in a timely revival at the Birmingham Rep next month. Thrusting and gyrating in a deliciously lewd conga line, the cast are enacting the exuberant finale to the first act when as traders on the floor of LIFFE (the London International Financial Futures Exchange) they erupt into a singing tribute to their raison d’être: “money-making money-making. “
“Serious Money is one of the great plays about greed, moneymaking and what it does to people,” says director Jonathan Munby of his reasons for wanting to revive it. “It’s rare that you find a play that speaks so directly of the moment.” Set after Big Bang, the wave of deregulation in the City in October 1986, Churchill’s ferocious satire on the financial excesses and corporate venality of the 1980s was first staged at the Royal Court in 1987, directed by Max Stafford-Clark and starring Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina and Meera Syal. Now, says Munby, the play is still “not only extraordinarily resonant but it describes this culture and a way of thinking – a new form of moneymaking – that has led directly to the crash we are living through. I don’t think Caryl had any idea how prophetic she was being when she wrote it.”
Churchill wrote the play following a two-week workshop at the Royal Court in September 1986 during which she visited LIFFE, the London Stock Exchange and Metal Exchange and spoke to people who worked in the City. Then she spent weeks immersed in the Financial Times. She only got a purchase on how to write the play when writing it in verse. “Her language is heightened,” says Munby, “but has an energy and rhythm that matches the energies and rhythms in the City at the time.”
This marks the first major revival since the original production. “Caryl hadn’t really looked at it since [then],” says Munby. “I think she was pretty amazed by the scale of it. This play is a huge beast. There are excesses that reflect the excesses of the time. It feels like a play of the mid-80s. The sheer theatricality: there are musical numbers, there’s a company of 16 and many play four or five different parts. “
Of the numerous challenges in staging it – Churchill’s overlapping dialogue and verse language need carefully choreography like the musical numbers – it’s the financial complexities in the plot that have proved most taxing for the new cast. Even Churchill, says Munby, was shocked by the intricacies. “She said she must have understood it at one point.” Munby prescribed his actors a regime of daily scouring of the Financial Times, briefings from banking experts and economists and field trips to the City (hence rehearsals in London). “It was essential to get their minds into this world. I’ve been turning them into city bankers and traders.”
In the original production there was a danger that what Churchill intended as critique could be read as celebration. Certainly the money men who saw the play in 1987 were tickled pink by its vivid depiction. For all its sting, the play is still breathlessly entertaining. Investment banks like Morgan Stanley International and Shearson Lehman even booked out whole performances for their staff. Munby expects this revival, which he hopes will transfer to London will affect audiences differently. “Because we’re in a recession and because we’re suffering as a result I think it will provoke questions about our current government and about New Labour. I think it will sadden an audience horribly to see the origins of the mess we’re in.” He adds: “I can’t imagine anyone celebrating now.”
<p>Caryl Churchill's cutting play about City traders returns to the stage, 22 years later. <strong>Ajesh Patalay</strong> talks to the director</p>