David McWilliams in the Abbey Theatre world premiere of 'Outsiders' by David McWilliams, directed by Conall Morrison at the Peacock. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

David McWilliams in the Abbey Theatre world premiere of 'Outsiders' by David McWilliams, directed by Conall Morrison at the Peacock. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Outsiders is a one-man-show by journalist and economics pundit David McWilliams, essentially a distillation of the views he has put forth in various forums including radio, television and print throughout the Recession. McWilliams stands alone on a set depicting the unfinished roof of a building under construction. The wall behind him is a screen onto which various slides are projected, a mixture of graphics and photographic images depicting miscellaneous charts and figures, the faces of well known politicians and developers, and also some ‘colour’ shots that form a backdrop to McWilliams’ anecdotes, and illustrations of economic theory by reference to symbol and metaphor (nits, exploding buildings, gay Australian surfers). Conall Morrison is accredited as director, but though McWilliams does indeed move about the stage with some sense of design in order to enliven what is a non-stop rapid-fire monologue for more than an hour and a half, and though there is some timing involved with the slideshow, it’s hard to imagine a great deal of time was needed to ‘set the scene’ and give McWilliams his stage.

Abbey Theatre Director Fiach Mac Conghail prefaces the programme for Outsiders with a note linking McWilliams’ lecture with the National Theatre’s artistic imperative “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland”. He thereby argues that this presentation is part of a legacy of public expression addressing the needs of the Irish people. Certainly the presentation raises some immediate questions about art, about theatre, and about the needs and expectations of an audience.

There is ‘art’ in McWilliams’ script and his delivery. The script is carefully structured, considerably less dense with actual economic detail than you might expect, and heavy with autobiographical metanarrative and parenthetical allusions designed to hold interest and present identifiable analogues to the theories under examination in common experiences (childhood, travel, everyday life in boom and in bust). Be you actor, journalist, or lecturer, a lengthy solo sojourn on stage facing an audience requires skill, and that skill can be refined to ‘art’: no question. McWilliams’ delivery is generally good. He is an experienced media personality with clear diction, solid timing, and a reasonable degree of vocal modulation. He holds the audience for the duration.

It is arguable that our idea of ‘theatre’ is broad enough to encompass a non-fictive monologue. There is certainly a place for documentary in art, even on David McWilliams in the Abbey Theatre world premiere of 'Outsiders' by David McWilliams, directed by Conall Morrison, at the Peacock. Photo: Ros Kavanaghstage; with productions like No Escape and Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry, it is not unfamiliar. It is also sustainable to say that Irish politics is a kind of theatre that plays out as farce and tragedy every day, and the same is true for economics if McWilliams’ casting of various heroes and villains is our guide. His basic division of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is transparent enough, and he is careful to rhetorically and ethically position himself with the ‘us’ that is the ‘outsider’ camp. He uses terms like ‘mandarins’, ‘the establishment’ and ‘cronies’ quite a bit, as if they describe moustachio-twirling fiends, and the audience is invited to savour the venom as the satirist pillories them. He even does ‘funny’ voices, including a fussy Australian cameraman, drunken homophobic GAA supporters, ganja-rolling Jamaican porters, German nudists, an arrogant French cook, and several comical Northsiders including a breakfast roll-eating builder, a taxi driver, and Bertie Ahern. His impressionism fails him with a South Dublin female with a high pitched voice and, for some strange reason, Brian Cowen, whom he does with an English accent, but the basic thing is the villains are certainly characterised and caricatured, an unknowable and unlovable ‘them’ to the ‘us’ that is the heroism of the Irish people and, I suppose, our humble narrator. Have I drifted into the realms of ‘theatre’ in my description? Well, a kind of theatre, certainly.

The last part of the question raised by this presentation is the status of the audience. If you pay to see this show, what do you expect to experience? If you’ve listened to, read, or seen McWilliams’ work and have enjoyed it, then you will enjoy the fact that he retreads it in person. The celebrity performer effect cannot be underestimated (and I’m not looking at South King Street at all). There will be no surprises here (apart from one very loud sound effect). Perhaps that is enough. Perhaps McWilliams’ speech does give vent to the emotions of the Irish people right now, and perhaps those same people will benefit from hearing it in this forum. But will it change anything? Does this deployment of the stage stir the emotions enough to prompt action, and if so, what action?

McWilliams’ recommendation (sorry to spoil the ending for you) is we need more Capitalism – a Capitalism based on risk taking and consequence. If you want the detail, he calls for the lapsing of the bank guarantee, the closure of Anglo-Irish bank, the reversal of NAMA, the devaluation of a new Irish currency, the sale of Irish banks to international concerns, the dropping of wages by 30%, the use of multinational corporations to stimulate the establishment of indigenous companies capitalised by the reserves of such corporations, and the judicial redefinition of the function of banks to prevent their involvement with property speculation. You know what? Some of that makes sense; some of it is perfectly valid theory, and it would be hard to argue with it on that level. But it’s also a kind of fiction: a wish-list, fantasy. Few in the audience for this show will ever wield the power needed to bring about these changes, much as rhetoric and aspiration would have it that the ‘real’ power is in the hands of the ‘outsiders’. It continues to strike me that the world of economics, the ‘real world’ we hear so much about these days, is as based on unrealisable imaginings as any fiction – and here, perhaps is the greatest truth to be found in pondering the value of McWilliams’ presentation: all life is art, all life is invention.

McWilliams himself brings out his biggest gun as he concludes: Joyce. Joyce the entrepreneur bringing Italian investors to Dublin to build the Volta cinema is, for McWilliams, indivisible from Joyce the modernist – breaking down boundaries, reshaping form, and challenging expectation. Economics, McWilliams tells us, is “the art of the possible”. Funny, I’m pretty sure Andrew Lloyd Webber had Juan Peron tell us in song that the art of the possible was politics. Ah. The circle closes.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Outsiders by David McWilliams

16 June - 03 July, 2010

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In Peacock Theatre

Directed by Conall Morrison

Set and Lighting: John Comiskey

Sound: Derek Conaghy

With: David McWilliams