The world of big finance is deliberately obscured such that the average person isn’t aware of a problem until the economy comes crashing down around them and they lose all their savings. It’s part of the appeal of movies like the Big Short or Wall Street, which part the curtain on banks, brokerages, and the intricate financial systems that hold them all together. Beth Steel’s 2016 script shoulders its way behind the scenes of the 1981 US Recession, specifically, and the banks that made it possible.
Like Wall Street or the more recent the Wolf of Wall Street, Labyrinth follows a newbie to the big financial scene, John Anderson (Matt Abotomey), as he slowly learns the ropes and raises himself from the bottom to being a major contributor to the bank’s profits. Charlie (Angus Evans) shows John around, introducing him to their work of international lending which targets Latin American countries as a booming client base. And Charlie quickly indoctrinates John in the art of fudging, downplaying the risks involved in lending money to countries that cannot afford to pay it back in order to reap more profits in interest and extended loans. It’s all fun and games until suddenly Mexico defaults, throwing US banks into crisis and finally revealing the consequences of years of unethical banking practices.
Steel’s script is characteristically quippy with big men talking big game but an added element of surrealism in ghostly presences and dream sequences keeps the plot from becoming dry or derivative. Director Margaret Thanos drew upon these surrealist touches in frequent movement sequences, choreographed by Diana Paola Alvarado, as scene transitions and as an abstract way to depict the impact of Mexico’s economic collapse on general citizens who wore the brunt of their government’s failure. Often these movement sequences were on-the-nose illustrative of the bustling world of big finance, people walking quickly past each other or throwing paper into the air, but other times the movement added effective pathos like in the high-drama of a lyrical monologue by Camila Ponte Alvarez representing the suffering of the Mexican people while Diego Retamales mimed various methods of suicide, seemingly the only option for many suffering. Additionally, this climactic moment in the production incorporated many of the strengths of Dream Plane Productions’s quirky supernatural style, including a large papier-mâché calavera, UV paint used to turn the actors into eerie, glowing skeletons, and Alvarez in a red and black lace traditional Mexican tunic and skirt like the spirit of the country incarnate.
While the scenes of Charlie and John negotiating with the financial ministers of Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina had their own kind of tense intrigue and were performed with a sleek professionalism, the most creatively interesting aspects of Labyrinth were those that diverted from those themes. For example, John being haunted by his father (Richard Cox), who went to prison for fraud when John was young, were elegantly portrayed by Abotomey and Cox under a cool, film noir lighting design by Jas Borsovszky. Cox’s consistent nonchalance and destructive behaviour was frustrating on the emotional level and the effect was built well into Abotomey’s disintegrating integrity. Special mention should also be made of Tasha O’Brien and Rachael Colquhoun-Fairweather who played the comic relief of office pencil pushers Rick and Philip to great effect against the snarling, sneering countenance of Charlie and his ilk.
The set design, also by Thanos, was pragmatic in its recreation of an office building and various government meeting rooms with cheap particle board tables and wood panelled walls. As much as the plethora of wood products placed the action in the 1970s and 80s, the costume design by Holly-Jane Cohle favoured a slim-fit tailored suit to symbolise Charlie and John’s success and business, and the slickness matched their gelled hairstyles, but the suits themselves stood out as anachronistic.
Abotomey’s performance as the working class boy who made it big was compelling for his physical articulation of the tension between his roots and family history of fraud and the allure of wealth and power. While this individual narrative arc sometimes felt in competition with the much broader problem of the collapse of Latin America, Abotomey conveyed it with conviction. Evans also confidently played the sleazy businessman on the opposite end of the class scale from his performance as Ubu in UBU: A Cautionary Tale of Catastrophe. The combination of his baby-faced appearance and shark tooth sharp characterisation was particularly unsettling in this production. Alvarez as the smart but feeling financial journalist Grace, who predicted the looming cliff edge, was a touch of soft humanity amongst the greyness as well as the only voice of reason on which the audience could cling. Her performance was heartfelt with great integrity to both the character and the many people she represented. The performances were overall considered, bringing to life the many disparities in the script between the old financial ways of Howard’s (Brendan Miles) days and the new of Charlie and John, between the US and Latin America, and between the two methods of cool greed and warm care.
If you’re looking for another financial drama through which to cathartically curse the powerful men who wilfully sacrifice others’ lives for personal profit, then Labyrinth is a clean addition to the genre but with a particular spooky surreal twist straight out of Dream Plane Productions’s wheelhouse.
Labyrinth is running at Flight Path Theatre from August 17th – September 3rd
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