I want you not to have any hope. I want you not to lose yourself in any delusions.
In the introduction to his new play, Anders Lustgarten outlines his reasons for writing it: he wants ‘to help people understand’ the financial system that currently ‘dominates’ us, and he thinks that ‘now’s the time for the return of proper political theatre’ that ‘takes on’ the propaganda of markets that style themselves as indispensable. Unfortunately, despite the need for more new left-wing intellectual political theatre, and though offering some potentially interesting ideas on capitalism, austerity and the importance of grassroots movements and political engagement, If You Don’t . . . rapidly descends into arrogant polemic, in which Lustgarten uses his characters as mere mouthpieces with which he attempts to educate the audience.
It also quickly becomes evident that Lustgarten is no dramatist, yet: even at just 75 minutes, If You Don’t . . . feels interminably long; the pace is wildly uneven as the first half is composed of a series of short, punchy scenes while the second is formed of one extended piece based on the Occupy movement; many of the shorter scenes are left with frustratingly loose ends; the majority of the cast are required to play multiple one-dimensional characters (it’s odd that Lucian Msmati is the only one to play the same character throughout), and it’s never completely clear to what extent they’re interrelated, if at all.
The opening scene is a terrifying satire on the privatisation of social care in which a group of professionals meet at the Department of Home and Business Affairs. Led by Meera Syal’s government official, they’re there to discuss the ‘pointless cycle of deprivation and dependency’ with the aim of turning these burdens on society into opportunities by monetising ‘problem families’ in a way that offers a healthy return for investors. The alarming results of such a scheme are depicted in subsequent scenes as people are turned away from hospitals without treatment and the innocent are forced to plead guilty in order to keep the numbers of reoffenders down.
Lustgarten’s vision of Britain under Cameron is a bleak one – we have acts of racism, the abandonment of children and a callous disregard for the poor – and the cast do their best to breathe some life into the bankers, teachers, nurses, political activists, cleaners, Health & Safety inspectors and pensioners, but they’re given so little to work with and such a brief amount of time on-stage that they rarely become anything other than caricature. In the extended Occupy section, where a group of protestors (delighting in the fact that they’ve been labelled ‘terrorists’) are planning to stage a show trial of ‘the whole system’, the cast has more to work with, and there are also flashes of humour at the expense of the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’, Starbucks and the dreaded Health & Safety inspector. Again, however, although Lustgarten offers us some interesting ideas – is there a point to a trial in the absence of the perpetrators?, the importance of the democratic process – there’s a lack of depth and development and it’s difficult to engage with the sketchy characters and what’s being said.
Fittingly for an ‘austerity’ piece there is no set design and minimal lighting. Only a few pieces of scaffolding and plastic chairs are used and the multi-tasking cast are forced to pluck their costumes from clothes rails positioned on either side of the stage. If this had been a stronger piece of writing, the lack of a setting might have worked, but in the end it just adds to the overall feeling of the evening as one that’s thin and frustratingly under-developed.