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Monday 17 June 2019

Bailout: Making a drama out of a crisis shines light on our shared experience


Corridors of power: Declan Conlon as Brian Lenihan in Colin Murphy’s new drama, ‘The Bailout’
Corridors of power: Declan Conlon as Brian Lenihan in Colin Murphy’s new drama, ‘The Bailout’

Colin Murphy

As the bank guarantee was being debated during a late-night sitting of the Dáil 10 years ago, I was at a play called 'The Year of Magical Thinking'.

That would have been a good name for a play about the guarantee.

I was then the theatre critic for this newspaper. I didn't know anything about economics, but the guarantee struck me immediately as great material for a play.

British drama thrives on politics, whether fictional (the original 'House of Cards') or factual (Channel 4's forthcoming Brexit film by James Graham, starring Benedict Cumberbatch).

But Irish drama is oddly indifferent to what goes on in the corridors of power. The play about the guarantee never came. Eventually, I decided to do it myself, and brought it to theatre company Fishamble.

A year later, on the day of our opening in June 2013, by extraordinary coincidence, this newspaper broke the 'Anglo Tapes' story.

I had worried that our play about the bank guarantee would be old news. But suddenly the bank guarantee was, again, the big story.

We sold out. John Kelleher produced a screen version, 'The Guarantee' for TV3, and I wrote a follow-up for Fishamble and the Pavilion Theatre about what happened next.

We filmed that as 'The Bailout' - part one was shown on Virgin Media One last Monday and part two airs this coming Monday.

I struggled to adapt the first play for the screen, because arguments that had seemed electric on stage seemed dense and wooden on film. This time around, we decided not to adapt the play for film, but to film it as a play, in studio.

We used partial sets, let the backstage areas be caught on camera, and followed the actors as they got ready to walk on. One of them talks to the audience, through the camera, as if she were "breaking the fourth wall" on stage.

'The Bailout' is a drama of argument more than of character. It is the story of a battle of ideas, as well as of wills. That's a verbal story, not a visual one. It needs time, not quick cuts.

That's not supposed to work on telly any more -audiences are too visually sophisticated, and too intellectually distracted, is the consensus. We hope the consensus is wrong. If the form of this drama is an old-fashioned one, so is the aim.

We thought of the theatre production of the play as a kind of town hall meeting.

It was an act of civic engagement, and a form of political participation.

These days, those words are mostly associated with things that are partisan: 'civic engagement' means protest, 'political participation' implies party politics, or at least involvement with a political faction or grouping.

In the US, partisanship has increased dramatically in recent decades. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre found Republicans and Democrats more than twice as far apart on key issues as they had been in 1994.

In her book 'Political Tribes', Amy Chua argues that US democracy is being transformed into an "engine of zero-sum political tribalism". That is being replicated across Europe.

As citizens retreat further into tribal identities, they lose both insight into and respect for those outside their tribe.

As people of differing political persuasion become more remote, it becomes easier to demonise them.

Democracy then becomes a crude majoritarianism where the winner seizes all the spoils, and the loser's only objective is to frustrate the winner in everything.

Drama offers a way of telling stories stripped of partisan intent.

The theatre can be a town hall meeting that isn't organised by one party.

A TV drama can knit an audience together in their shared investment in the predicament of its characters.

If that drama is the true story of the country's recent crisis, perhaps that coming together of an audience can help create the basis for a debate that starts from a shared understanding, instead of from tribal or ideological silos.

Zero-sum tribalism thrives on simplistic politics.

If we can tell a more complex story, it makes it more difficult to take simple sides.

It's easy to have a likeable hero who always quashes the enemy.

But good drama should force you into the shoes of someone you disagree with or even dislike, and show you the world through their eyes, as they struggle with fear and failure.

For example, the hero of Shakespeare's 'Richard III', which Druid is bringing to the Dublin Theatre Festival next week, is a hunchback child murderer.

Doing that with politics is a form of transparency. Drama can go where even the journalists can't - behind the closed doors in the corridors of power.

It can even try to go inside the heads and hearts of the powerful. It can let some light in.

That's why it's always worthwhile making a drama out of a crisis.

Irish Independent

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