Sometimes a story needs more than a show. It’s not always enough to sit back in the dark. Some stories need living to make themselves fully felt.
Ontroerend Goed are masters of this. In the decade since the Belgians first came to the Fringe, their interactive shows have seduced us, betrayed us and—more misguidedly—abused us. They know just how to trick an audience – but the best tricks are often those that hide in plain sight. £¥€$ (LIES) is full of them. The title tells you as much.
LIES reveals the global financial system for the casino it is. It takes Wall Street and turns it into Las Vegas – a city as rife with cardsharks as crapshoots. The difference is that here, the odds are stacked in your favour. Until, of course, they’re not.
We sit, eight per game, at six elegant pine casino tables, each its own individual stock market. Your croupier deals out the chips, one million apiece. You place your stakes, roll your dice and hope for returns. Gradually—skilfully—LIES ups the ante. New ways of making money come into play: bonds, short trading, mergers and more. Alarm bells start to ring, but you’ve hit a hot streak. Your credit rating’s gone up; your stash of chips too.
You already know exactly how LIES ends. You knew it from the start. You’ve already lived it. All of us have. The only conceivable conclusion is a catatonic crash. It can’t end any other way – and yet, in the moment, flush as fuck, you forget. Up 60, 70, 80 million, you lose sight of all that – all those bankers with boxes, all those stockbrockers screaming across the trading floor, all those runs on Northern Rock. You feel invincible. You can’t help but win. You’re Rothschild. You’re Midas. You’re the Wolf of fucking Wall Street.
That’s the brilliance of the game’s construction showing through. It’s all smoke and mirrors; lies built on lies. More and more chips flow into the game. Loans become meaningless; bonds, make-believe. All money is magic, and the croupier’s actions resemble nothing so much as close-up card tricks. They offer you options you only half grasp, but options you can’t afford not to take. Keeping up with your rivals becomes all-important; all-consuming. The pace quickens, your guard slackens, control slips away, and your choices come back with consequences you never saw coming. Boom.
Foreign Radical, on the other hand, never lets you forget yourself. In 2014, under President Obama, America extended its surveillance laws. It dropped the need for concrete proof of extremism. Suspicion and association were enough to land you on a watchlist that grew by 500,000. It paved the way for President Trump’s travel ban.
Tim Carlson’s Theatre Conspiracy make a game show of surveillance. A toothsome (and teeth-grinding) host puts us through a quiz, scrutinising the likelihood we’ll end up on that list. Do you encrypt messages? Attend political parties? Speak Farsi? Our answers determine what we get to see, but there’s scant rhyme or reason underlying that process. It’s all much of a muchness.
Scenes from border control cut through it. An Arabic man stands, naked and akimbo, over an interview table. We rifle through his suitcase in search of suspicious material as if it were a Generation Game challenge. Based on what we find, should we submit him to surveillance? That’s when Foreign Radical’s shortcomings become clear. Like-minded liberals line up to say no. There’s no debate to be had, and no tripping us up. We’re left to signal our virtues and polish our halos. It’s too public for anything else.
From the Ground Up uses that to its advantage. Theatre’s equivalent of an online personality test, it pushes us, in public, to own up to ourselves. The conceit is that the Almeida Young Company, all aged between 16 and 25, are conducting research into types of adult. Our ethics. Our politics. Our beliefs about the world. We’re their sample group. Their human lab rats.
With one hand stamped "YES", the other marked "NO", we face a barrage of personal questions, some easy, some hard, some nigh-on impossible. Are you the sort to seek status at work? Do you believe in such a thing as society? If push came to shove, would you cling to power? Are you sexually adventurous? Are hijabs regressive? Most of our choices are made in full public view – one step left for yes, one right for no. We’re on show here, no mistake. The kids have clipboards and they’re taking notes.
It’s a reminder that our choices set an example. The performers are all still working out where they stand on these things, who they want to be. The questions are probing, and there’s no fudging allowed. It forces us to find out where we stand and, based on our answers, each picks their teams. It’s a bit like submitting yourself to the Sorting Hat.
True, the game doesn’t go as far as it might. Our choices don’t have consequences, nor do our tribes mean that much. It’s all a bit arbitrary and unscientific, with shades of surveillance left under-explored. But who really cares? It still reveals us to ourselves.