October 23, 2019

EYES/LIES – OzAsia Festival, Adelaide

Ontroerend Goed
Space Theatre
October 20.

The name of the impressively original Belgian theatre company, Ontroerend Goed, the program notes tell us, roughly translates as “Feel Estate”. This sounds almost as cryptic as the original Belgian but there is no doubt that they provide audiences with unexpected and memorable experiences when they come to their performances.

From their first visit to Australia in 2008 they have offered a unique form of immersive experience. With The Smile Off Your Face we were led into a room, three or four at a time, where we sat blindfolded with wrists tied, sitting in a wheelchair while disembodied voices spoke quietly into our ears asking us intrusive questions about our day, the state of our hearts, and whether we were happy. Paradoxically what should have been threatening and disturbing turned out to be gently captivating, a kind of benign rendition.

EYES/LIES (the title is made up of currency symbols – the Pound, the Yen, the Euro and the Dollar) draws us quietly but firmly into another kind of experience: the world of international finance. But it is not about abstract economics or theories of commerce and supply and demand; instead it delves into that part of the Feel Estate that shows you what it is like to be filthy rich. The Scrooge McDuck swimming in the money bin kind of rich. And the nonchalance that goes with turning a lot of money into even more money.

The Space Theatre is decked out like an exchange market, but it is also like a casino. When we enter we are separately allocated a table, no partners or plus ones to conspire with, each one an island. Or, more precisely a bank. Seven per table, seven tables, 49 newly minted bankers per performance. The tables we sit around are intricately inlaid with doubloon-sized discs of dark wood – denoting a semi circle where we are to stack our heaps of casino chips.

By chance, Michael, the fellow sitting next to me, built the tables for the Adelaide season – and the central tower which signalled the changing financial fortunes of the room. The set is a work of art, built to the strict specifications of the designer Nick Mattan. Michael notes wryly that most sets he builds are fake, but these tables are real. Later when he and I merge our banks we decide to call it The House of Ply.

As we are seated we are greeted by our financial guide who also acts as croupier when the trading frenzy begins. We are each assigned a bank – I am Royal Bank of Murray. Our table is a larger bank, La Casa del Tom (Tom got naming rights because he was the first seated.) Our unidentified guide explains the rules and disperses our bank holdings. Each chip is worth $1 million and we have stacks of them, and bonds, and we can borrow more.

As the game develops we are offered new bank products. We can pay to do short trading, we can buy more bonds – some junk, some sure bets. When the bank opens for business we all put forward our investment chips – $2 million, often more – roll our dice and hope it’s five or six and not one or two. It’s fast and you have to keep your wits about you.

It is all momentum and looking around at what others are up to. The information escalates about new investment strategies, there’s more happening than you can comprehend. We are being immersed in financial trading and we are often acting like sheep and hoping no-one notices. When the stacks of chips and bond markers accumulate we feel absurdly smug, when others aren’t coping, we don’t give a rat’s. This is dog eat chiahuahua and we are hardly noticing.

You can’t have 49 banks in one place, of course, without someone going bung. I am just relieved it’s somebody else and draw my stash a little closer to my elbow. But then the room has to decide which of the three banks tottering can be rescued by a group action. We can vote Pink, Purple or Yellow. We look at the colour of our chips and bonds. Anyone with a stack of yellow bonds is smiling when Yellow is saved, others of us peevishly dump our purple chips.

Late in the proceedings there is a homily from the main administrator about the importance of Trust and Co-operation but the visceral experience of using money to make more money, as well as taking it in large stacks from our neighbours, is both a guilty pleasure and mightily disconcerting.

EYES/LIES is a creepy insight into the greedy gobbledygook of banking and the swine fever of a panicky, overwrought market. Director Alexander Devriendt and his skilful team have created a theatrical experience you won’t forget. You can bank on that.

Daily Review, October 22, 2019.

EYES/LIES review (OzAsia Festival, Adelaide)

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