Richard III could have made an excellent stock broker.
At least, I think that’s what Caryl Churchill would have us assume in her stock market-set black comedy Serious Money, which unfolds as an uncanny relative to old Jacobean dramas. Written almost entirely in rhymed verse, Serious Money reminds us that the old power players of lore have found new contemporary incarnations as money players. Except, instead of royal sovereignty as leverage, they’ve got money. And ambition. But mostly, money.
Lots and lots of money.
Caryl Churchill is a master at experimenting with her plays’ structures to reflect their content. Her most famous play, Cloud Nine, examines gender and race in society not only in the characters’ spoken thoughts and actions, but also in its cross-temporal setting (Act 1 takes place in colonial Africa, Act 2 in 1980’s London with the same characters) and cross-gender/race casting (Some male characters are played by women and vice verse). Blue Heart looks at lying in family relationship by having the characters’ language slowly deconstruct into arbitrary (yet somehow still comprehensible) nonsense. However, Churchill makes the most news with her critical stance against Israel through her recent play-writing.
In line with the Potomac Theatre Project’s mission of producing culturally-relevant, thought-provoking works, this revival, originally performed in 1987, examines the London Stock Exchange shortly after the “Big Bang” of 1986, which was the sudden deregulation of the stock market under Margaret Thatcher. This and the new digitization of trading makes for an upheaval of market rules. Anything goes.
Serious Money dramatizes the chaos that results from unrestricted, now computerized, greed. At several points throughout the play, traders jabber and yell incomprehensibly across the floor or into their phones as they stare at the numbers screen. This chaos also has global reaches. This unusually large cast of characters hail from England, New York, Scotland (Norma and I love a good Scot accent every now and then), Peru, and Ghana. Most of the actors play multiple roles, all skillfully and comically. But it all makes up for more chaos and confusion in an already convoluted play. The plot centers around the mysterious suicide of an up-and-coming broker Jake Todd. His sister, Scilla, decides to investigate the death. In the process, we land upon the shady dealings of American banker Zac Zackerman and British dealer Billy Corman.
Now, I definitely couldn’t follow all the shady, not-so-underhanded industry. There’s a lot of industry speak (only slightly helped by a glossary in the playbill), and the rhymed verse and large cast only tend to exasperate the issue. But I grasped enough to know that money is not the only currency being used in tradings – there are also lots of political favors and sexual promises. Some women, like Jacinta, a Peruvian businesswoman, and Scilla know how to use their sexuality to get the better of their competitors. Others, like Mrs. Etherington (played by Megan Byrne, whose hilarious expressions are regular scene-stealers) get manipulated by their male superiors and lose their way.
The play’s selling point is its black humor. I felt like a lot of the jokes got lost in the frantic chaos and the wordiness of the play. But there are good laughs to be had by the play’s excellent cast, as well as in some of Churchill’s unexpected choice of rhymes.
PTP heralds Serious Money as prophetic of our own cultural moment, in that the baddies get away with their misdeeds and unite intrinsically with political forces to advance their greed. And while I agree that this decade’s financial experience mimics that of Thatcher’s England, the play still remains stuck in its chaotic time and place, making it a bit difficult to orient yourself in.