Collective mania:£¥€$ (LIES) at the Almeida Theatre

Collective mania:<em>£¥€$ (LIES)</em> at the Almeida Theatre

If I had known that, five minutes into sitting down to watch £¥€$ (LIES), I would have to empty my wallet onto the table in front of me and invest its contents in a new bank, I might have made sure there was more than 22p in it.

Brought to the UK by Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed, LIES is a furiously enjoyable simulation of the global banking crash. The audience are separated into groups of six, each fanned around a sleek gambling table headed by a black-clad croupier. We’re invited to invest our cash – the more the better – with frivolous rolls of dice over two increasingly feverish hours.

The concept is at once brilliantly simple and mischievously bewildering. Each audience member is a bank, each table a nation state, with the room collectively representing a global financial market that we are trying to grow. The health of this market is noted on a revolving central board that also ranks each table’s performance.

Things begin calmly: we invest, cautiously at first, gradually building the confidence to make riskier, higher-gain investments. We pay our taxes. But soon the system grows more complex, and in increasingly unfamiliar financial language, we are encouraged to invest harder, invest faster.

Trust each other, we are told. Fractional-reserve banking expands the economy, dizzying loans are granted, bonds circulate on the international market, banks merge and become too big to fail. I feel genuine pride and achievement when our little nation state, first awarded a C- minus rating, climbs to a B+. Equally thrilling is looking down to see millions of pounds in chips piling up.

Of course, it all comes crashing down, and with it the bullish confidence that bolstered our labyrinthine system. What rises in its place is the slightly abashed feeling of having been swept up in a kind of collective mania over which we had very little – if any – control. It is a hugely effective and enjoyable piece of psychological manipulation that reveals how easy it is to be reckless when you’re all doing it, how fragile shared trust can be, how quickly things can go wrong.

It’s also a fascinating, original way of playing out a concept, though whether it is completely successful as a piece of theatre is debatable, since it can feel more like a particularly charged family game of Monopoly than an immersive theatre experience. Indeed, emphasis is deliberately placed on the show’s game-like qualities, not least in the obvious symbolism of rolling a die to win or lose an investment.

But whether you call it a psychological experiment or a board game, LIES undoubtedly pushes at the boundaries of what is considered theatre, particularly in the way the spotlight is shone on the audience and the internal dynamics of each group. With some players more cautious with their investments and others overly bullish, each table is different and, by extension, each performance completely original.

Guaranteed at each performance, however, is the clever, cool staging that skilfully creates a collective atmosphere. Tables trace a large circle around the borders of the room, each one facing outwards and lit seductively against the black décor. And while the audience can often feel like the actors, the croupier-style figure is the real performer, encouraging us to further enmesh ourselves in the sticky web of banking. By turns genial and stern – various bankers around my table were admonished for tax evasion or early dice rolls – ours led us merrily astray.

Whether or not LIES manages to – or even wants to – impart a moral is unclear. While this is more nuanced than a simple tirade against the banking system or the circumstances that led to the global financial crash, it also doesn’t provide much advice on how to prevent another.

Yet in its recreation of the thrilling, giddying and uneasy sensation of being part of – trapped in, even – a byzantine system that removes our control in return for the addictive thrill of risking everything in the roll of a die, it makes it impossible for us to ignore the effects of such recklessness.

Go, enjoy, lose control but take some cash.

£¥€$ (LIES) will play at the Almeida Theatre until 18 August.

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