Cleverly crafted farce makes us laugh till it hurts
President Michael D Higgins speaking to Colin Murphy, writer of Guaranteed!, by Fishamble theatre company, before a performance in the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
At the theatre, you hear many kinds of laughter: raucous guffaws, sly sniggers, intellectual titters of delight. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard laughter quite like that at Fishamble’s “produced reading” of Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed! at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght.
Murphy’s deft and deeply intelligent script is a superbly researched and cleverly shaped reconstruction of the events leading up to perhaps the single most fateful government decision in the history of the State: the blanket bank guarantee of September 2008.
It is not a satire and it is not played for laughs.But it gets them, nonetheless. At regular intervals, a harsh, cold cackle – bitter, rueful, balefully knowing – sweeps through the audience. Comedy arises when there is a contradiction, a slippage, a disjunction between one perception and another. And here, the slippage is between lived reality and retrospect.
This is stuff we all lived through: house prices spiralling to infinity and beyond; Bertie Ahern bestriding the globe like Colossus in yellow trousers; Brian Cowen, singing and drinking his way through his night of triumph in Offaly; Anglo Irish Bank getting award after award for its miraculous production of profits. At the time, it was just the way things were.
Except, of course, it looks utterly grotesque now. We know now, as most of us did not then, where it was all leading. So watching the whole thing now is like watching someone ambling along in the sunshine, whistling a happy tune, towards the edge of an unseen abyss. We’re programmed, at some level, to find this funny: kids will happily watch people slip on a patch of invisible ice all day.
But, in Guaranteed!, there’s an extra twist. We’re not just watching someone walk blithely into the abyss; we also are that someone. This is our story too; we’re roped to these reckless climbers on the highest slopes of bubble mountain. There’s a kind of double take; we look at the man slipping on the banana skin but we feel the shock and pain of the fall. Hence that strange, mirthless laughter.
Murphy understands it. It matters greatly that his knowledge of the theatre is as firm as his grasp of the banking crisis. There’s a brilliant juxtaposition of a crisis meeting between David Drumm of Anglo Irish Bank and the financial regulator on September 20th, with a speech by Cowen, the then taoiseach, on the same day: “Handball is synonymous with Crinkle: it’s been played here since the army barracks was built at the turn of the 19th century . . . So I’m particularly delighted to now declare this handball alley officially open.”