A new play I am directing echoes the message of the recent general election: inequality is completely out of hand.
From the very beginning, our species behaved hierarchically, just like chimpanzees, with whom we share a common ancestor. We have always colluded in the principle that some people are much more important than the rest, that some deserve the jewels, the gold, the wealth; and in a pyramid formation, society should be upheld by the have-not masses forming the base. These thoughts are very much on my mind as I direct a new play by Oliver Cotton that asks searching questions about inequality. I am, of course, wary of entering such a fray. “Oh, those know all-know-nothing theatre people getting involved in politics, when all they are about is red carpets and self-publicity.” But I feel it’s safe to venture a few observations about the world we are living in.
Why, with our brain power, didn’t we humans collectively agree from the outset that we should all be equal? Or at least that those at the pinnacle of the pyramid shouldn’t have too much, and those at the base shouldn’t have too little? Our species is bewilderingly flawed, capable of things angelic, equally capable of behaving like beasts. The shockingly unfair world we live in is, regrettably, entirely of our own making.
Every revolutionary attempt across the world and down the ages to unmake what we humans have made has pretty much ended in disaster: venality, corruption, dictatorship. Religions, the framers of new constitutions, and revolutionary movements all declare our equality. And yet, even in our enlightened social democratic western world, we remain utterly unequal – probably more so now than at any previous time.
I’m not being a Corbynista when I register incomprehension at the man who so commendably started a company he called Amazon in his garage, and who now has a personal fortune of $83bn. Are there countless people out there who want one day to be able to say, “I’m worth $83bn”? Is it possible that the world’s wealth will, in some not-distant future, be concentrated in the hands of even fewer people than it is now?
I have had my share of good luck. As a working-class boy, I was in a state of disbelief when two shows I directed – Les Misérables and Cats – enjoyed international commercial success. But my surprise didn’t become a determination to get richer.
I have to presume that the motive for acquisition is competition: that driving force, that god in Margaret Thatcher’s universe, the market. Competition to defeat all your rivals, competition to be able to declare you have more wealth than anybody except Bill Gates, competition to get more than Bill Gates.
Whenever I visit Paris, I contemplate the sheer scale of the Louvre. It is vast, tentacular, comprising hundreds of rooms, surrounding dumbfoundingly huge halls. This was once the home of French royalty. It is overwhelmingly unnecessary, grotesquely out of proportion. The excess is so palpable, it’s not really surprising that the reaction against such opulence ultimately culminated in the French Revolution.
When does excess become unbearable for the multitude to accept? When is too much, too much? That question is at the heart of Cotton’s play, Dessert – a title cunningly containing two meanings.