Blackberry? Excel spreadsheet? Stripy socks? Lack of sleep?Check!
Run, on now at the New Diorama and touring England in early 2015 is a tale of four investment banking interns at a large City corporation. The ninety minute play by Engineer Theatre Collective has developed out of conversations with people in the financial sector but is inspired by the true story of Moritz Erhardt, the 21 year old intern who died in London last year after allegedly working 72 hours without a break.
The stage is a square of office carpeting. The audience sit along each side, at the corners are wheeled office chairs which are brought into action in many of the scenes. Four young actors play Lawrence, Anna, Tim and Caroline, four new graduates who are competing for two full-time positions at the bank.
We first meet enthusiastic Caroline, played by Charlotte Watson, in her interview for the position. The boss is unseen, his voice piped in over loudspeakers, creating a sense of omnipotence. Caroline happily explains how she would definitely skip a friend’s wedding if a team meeting clashed at the last minute. Not just any friend’s wedding, but one where she was heavily involved in the ceremony. Anna (Beatrice Scirocchi) and Lawrence have similarly career-first attitudes. Anna is in-it-to-win-it, Lawrence is following his uncle’s footsteps and Al Jarrett well captures his braying certainty. Only Tim (Joseph Sentance) criticises a culture based on greed. Sentance makes Tim’s uncertainty about what he is getting into real, though as these four interns were part of an intake of only 100 chosen from 5000 applications it seems likely his wavering attitude would have been rooted out earlier.
The play follows the interns through their ten week placement, showing the effect on relationships and character of ambition and over-work. As they get more and more obsessed with their blackberries and Excel spreadsheets the intra-group dynamics change and selfishness becomes rampant. The script doesn’t overtly condemn, but as portrayed here investment banking is the 21st century’s version of the dehumanising factories of the Industrial Revolution. The workers might go into it willingly and get paid large bonuses, sorry, compensation, but once there they are part of a machine kicking out even greater profits for the unseen voices in charge.
The in-the-round staging is immersive, but there are differences in how the audience responds depending on where they are sitting. In one unpleasantly violent scene I saw the backs of Anna and Caroline – but those watching their faces must have seen something more than the hair-pulling and kicking as they broke into laughter.
Are the interns simply driven by their own greed and ambition? Or are they stuck in a system, trying to make the money everyone needs so they can retire and do something else? As a famous character didn’t say, is greed good? How long can you treat people as robots with no need for sleep or rebooting before they crack? Is such a life worth the cost?
Engineer Theatre is a bright ensemble, working together in a way the investment banking interns are forced to shun. Here they successfully investigate contemporary issues and take risks with subject matter. After all, a play about banking interns sounds a hard sell. Somewhere in its genesis someone must have said, but will anyone come and see it? There might be lots of investment bankers who on paper would be keen – but if I’ve learnt anything recently it’s that most investment bankers will be working far too hard to do anything as frivolous as see a play. They should make the time. Run is surprisingly absorbing and plays out the effects that a pact with money, or even just mis-directed ambition can have. It doesn’t just reflect the lives of bankers, but shows the wider need for companionship. We should, the play implies, look out for others. And not by supplying them with prescription drugs.