The Low Road, Jerwood Theatre, Royal Court, London – review

Given the current chronic economic climate and the grievous disputes about who is responsible and who pays the price, there are plenty of big questions about morality and markets to be asked. And playwright Bruce Norris certainly approaches his subject – the fundamental nature of capitalism – with great panache. Rather than the closely-focused drama through which he has handled other vast, thorny themes, he digs at the roots of our present predicament, creating a roving, picaresque piece, set mainly in 18th-century America. His protagonist is one Jim Trumpett, a foundling boy turned entrepreneur, who arrives at manhood in in 1776, the same year Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published, and sets out to make his fortune in the world.

It’s an engaging premise. In keeping with its subject, the play has a free-wheeling, buccaneering style: a roguish mix of Henry Fielding and Bertolt Brecht. Brechtian captions set the scenes; Adam Smith himself (a drily amusing Bill Paterson) plays narrator. Jim, probably the offspring of a common thief, fancies himself to be the secret son of George Washington, and as he chases profit with ruthless enthusiasm, he becomes the physical embodiment of one of the ideological tenets of the young country: the right of an individual to pursue his own interest.

Jim, played by Johnny Flynn with breathtaking, brazen confidence, buys a slave and embarks upon a rackety life of wealth acquisition. He rages against taxes, charity and collective ownership to an appalled puritan community and finally winds up managing the affairs of a rich philanthropist in New York, whose money he speculates away. At a crucial moment, he finds himself literally at a crossroads: he takes the low road, favouring rapid progress, in a move that Norris sees as symbolic of the US – indeed of humanity as a whole. Midway through all this, a scene at a contemporary economic summit draws links between Jim’s ideology and the current financial quagmire.

But though the play is laudably ambitious in scope and playful in style, it all begins to feel rather laboured and longwinded. The swashbuckling style wears thin, despite some excellent work from the ensemble (20 actors playing more than 50 parts) in Dominic Cooke’s vivid production (his swan song as artistic director) and it lacks the piercing, troubling wit and insight of Norris’s earlier works. It’s great that Cooke leaves with an epic, probing study of the huge uncertainties we face, but a pity that it doesn’t live up to its dramatic promise.

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