Philanthropy (or not) on the stage: a review of ‘The Money’ by Kaleider theatre company

  Unsplash: "micheile-henderson-SoT4-mZhyhE-unsplash" by Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash . Creative Commons

‘The Money’ is a piece of participative theatre in which half the audience (the ‘benefactors’) get to decide how to spend a pile of cash whilst the other half (‘silent witnesses’) have to watch and hold their tongue, unless they decide to add at least £10 to the pile and become a benefactor.

It was absolutely enthralling to watch ordinary people discussing money and what they could – and should – do with it. Some were lobbying for their favourite causes from the start, many suggested sending it to help the relief effort in Nepal, but the over-riding consensus was that large charities were worthy but ‘boring’ and it would be preferable to do something more creative. A popular suggestion was to hide £5 notes within the leaves of library books, which led to an interesting side discussion of whether a note should be included asking the lucky recipients to report to the group on how they spent their windfall; some liked the idea of interacting with their beneficiaries and others rejected the enforced gratitude this might create. Other creative ideas including buying a group dog, saving it to buy a huge wreath for the first person in the group to die, or simply putting the money behind the bar after the show.

Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash

Tension was injected when one benefactor insisted that unless he receive 50% of the cash (to spend on himself) he would not sign the final agreement, which the rules state has to be unanimous. Without a unanimous decision, the money rolls over to the next show. It was only at this point that a number of silent witnesses stepped in and paid £10 to join the discussion in order to encourage this man to change his mind. He stayed firm but admitted afterwards he was surprised that the audience (benefactors and silent witnesses) turned on him so forcefully, when his strategy was within the rules of the game and (one could also argue) reflects the expectations of a society in which the pursuit of self-interest is understood as the rational way to behave.

The final decision was a rather dispiriting decision that everyone would take away an equal share (which was essentially a refund of the £10 they had paid to be a benefactor) and do whatever they liked with it, then report their actions on a blog to be set up by one of the group. I think this reflected their primary desire to have an ‘experience’, rather than to do some collective good, and their reluctance for that experience to end when the show ended.

Despite the outcome being 20 or so affluent Londoners choosing individual consumption over collective altruism, it was a truly insightful evening that I will be thinking about for a long time. Money is still a deeply taboo subject in the UK – we’d rather talk about absolutely anything else – so it was an utter privilege to spend 90 minutes watching a group of strangers wrestle with the meaning and potential of a pile of banknotes.

Here’s the Guardian’s review of the play. It’s on for one more night at Battersea Arts Centre in London (Fri 1st May 7pm) – if you can get there, then get there!

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