Observe the great goat circling the rotting remains of the Tiger
CULTURE SHOCK:IT SEEMS APT that Julian Gough’s The Great Goat Bubble, which was one of the pleasures of the Galway Arts Festival, arrived in the theatre as a blow-in. It is a play about things of obvious and immediate importance; how an economic bubble is inflated, and how it collapses. But this is not the kind of thing for which Irish theatre has had much time. Gough’s tale was elaborated in other forms: as a story published, aptly and presciently, in the Financial Times in 2003 – it was the first short story ever published there; as a radio play for the BBC in 2009 and as an episode in Gough’s delightfully energetic picaresque novel, Jude in London. It works very nicely in Mikel Murfi’s deft production for Fishamble, but it is uncomfortable to reflect that it has taken almost a decade for such a story to become fit matter for the stage.
The point is not that it is in itself, a theatrical masterpiece, but rather that it shows how a large political subject can be handled on stage with very modest resources; two actors, 70 minutes and a simple, though rather beautiful, set by Sabine Dargent. The set-up could be from a Frank O’Connor short story; the platform of Ballinasloe railway station in the winter of 1987, a delayed train, a conversation to pass the time. The encounter between two men – a gormless Irish orphan, Jude, played by Ciaran O’Brien, and a Somali exile, Dr Ibrahim Bihi, played by Wil Johnson – follows the classic formula. One is familiar and parochial, the other exotic and mysterious; one represents innocence, the other experience. The piece depends on things Irish literature is supposed to have in abundance: Gough’s vivid storytelling, black humour and linguistic cleverness.
There is nothing, in other words, that would have prevented a piece like this being staged 10 or even 20 years ago. And it is hard not to watch it now and wonder how it might have been received if someone had asked Gough to adapt it after its initial appearance in 2003. As it happens, the timing would have been terrific. The classic Celtic Tiger boom had just ended and was being replaced by the Lauren Bacall economics of the property bubble: just put your lips together and blow.
The Great Goat Bubble would not then have been, as it is now, a rueful retrospect, evoking sad laughter. It would have been genuinely subversive and challenging. It’s startling, indeed, that the piece is written precisely as if it were to be staged in a totalitarian culture in which certain things must not be said. It reminds me a lot of seeing, for example, a play about Dracula in Ceausescu’s Romania: everyone knew it was about the dictator but not a single line actually referred to him. There was nothing for the secret police to swoop on, nothing direct or ostensible. In the context, this is a thrilling kind of theatre, one that creates a private contract between the author and the audience: when I say X, you know I mean Y.
The Great Goat Bubble works exactly like this. The storyteller, Dr Ibrahim, is not one of us. His tale happens in a far-off land of which we know nothing. He begins as a refugee in Hargeisa airport after the civil wars in which Somalia imploded. He is left with nothing but a three-legged goat and his education in economic theory, resulting in a PhD on “the exploitation of price discrepancies in imperfect markets”.
He knows that, in Somalia, if a driver kills a domestic animal it is customary to pay twice the market price in compensation. So he drives his goat in front of a UN relief plane that is landing on the runway.
With his compensation, he buys two goats and repeats the act. The story, as it is spun out from there by the wonderfully plausible Wil Johnson is both utterly absurd and entirely in keeping with what actually happened in financial markets in the West. Everyone gets in on the act. The price of goats rockets. Traders open an exchange in goat futures. The UN hedges against its losses in compensation by buying into those futures. Soon, actual goats are replaced by goat options and goat-based derivatives. Hargeisa is home to a gleaming electronic goat exchange with 14,000 millionaire traders and an endless flow of luxury goods.
THIS IS THE way you would have written about Ireland in 2003 if it were a totalitarian state in which direct criticisms of the official ideology were banned: make it all into an absurd fairy tale (couldn’t possibly happen) set in an exotic foreign place (even if it did happen, it couldn’t happen here). And this actually would have been particularly potent in 2003. As a play, and therefore a public act, it would have said two things at the same time. One is that our bubble is inflated by insanity and is bound to burst. The other is that we can’t even talk about it because we have a consensus that is almost as coercive as if we were living in a police state. But of course, neither of these things was actually said in the Irish theatre at the time.
Of course, this is not the fault of Gough or of Fishamble and the play is certainly better late than never. It more than earns its place in the present tense. But it is thinner than it would have been a decade ago, missing that whole layer of insinuating subversion. Gough is thus forced to make it blunter, to point up the parallels with Ireland by having Dr Ibrahim tell us about Charles Haughey and the Irish Financial Services Centre and by having Jude deliver an insistent but terrible pun on “proper tea”. Some of the subtlety of distance is lost towards the end of the piece.
Nonetheless, it deserves to tour widely and to be seen both for entertainment and instruction. It might be slightly depressing in reminding us of what Irish theatre failed to do but it shows that there is no big subject that can’t be done now, with courage and imagination and without the benefit of hindsight.