In his new show, “Outsiders,” David McWilliams tells a story about his recruitment into investment banking in the 1990s.
Ireland’s central bank sent tyro economist McWilliams to London to explain to a dozen investors that Ireland would never devalue its currency even as speculators bet against it.
Following the presentation, one audience member cornered him. “That was a remarkable exposition of economic principles,” his suitor told the startled young Dubliner. “You lie brilliantly for country. Now, come lie for me.”
That, he says, was the start of a career which took him to UBS AG and BNP Paribas SA before returning home in 2000 to become the nearest thing Ireland has to a celebrity economist.
His newspaper columns, three books and documentaries draw together the economic dots for the common man. Now, he’s taking his shtick to the Peacock stage at the Abbey, as part of the national theater’s admirable effort to engage with today’s issues rather than focus on money-spinning revivals of classics.
There’s no shortage of material, given the collapse of Ireland’s economic and to a lesser extent, social fabric in the last five years. The Abbey has chosen well in asking McWilliams to explain how, in his words, the Irish economy “evaporated.”
As ever with McWilliams, his work divides opinion. One reviewer on the Abbey’s website described the show as a “train wreck.” Another called it “stunning.”
The truth is somewhere in between.
The show is entertaining and fluent. The sparse staging, with a gantry crane and orange hard hat, captures the obsession with real estate.
Yet McWilliams is no economic messiah, and the 90-minute monologue comes unstuck when he seeks solutions.
First, the good. Dressed in an open necked shirt and suit, his analysis sparkles with anecdotes and one-liners.
Essentially, Irish banks borrowed from Germans -- personified by McWilliams as Gunther, the careful BMW accountant whose only eccentricity is an annual visit to a nudist colony in Croatia.
The banks fed Gunther’s cash to the Irish, who used it to build, buy and sell property to each other, buy worthless apartments in Bulgaria and send their children to private creches with names like ‘Little Harvard.’
Now Gunther wants his money back, and Ireland can’t pay.
McWilliams offers an alternative to the Irish government’s position that somehow the debt must be paid, even if that means pouring billions of taxpayers’ money into a banking black hole.
According to McWilliams, that amounts to a bailout of the insiders, the bankers, the developers and the lawyers that brought Ireland to the abyss. The outsiders, the rest of us, will pick up the tab in the shape of higher taxes, rising unemployment and emigration for generations to come.
What to do? First, default on the bank debt, says the ex-banker. Second, exit the euro as the region falls asunder, devalue our way out of our very own Great Depression and sell our banks to the French and Germans.
Then, somehow persuade the Googles and Microsofts which are dotted across Ireland to put 10 percent of their profits into start-up local companies in what McWilliams calls a “Joycean fusion” of U.S. money and Irish brainpower.
This would somehow be underwritten by the Irish diaspora, an untapped network stretching from New York to Shanghai.
It’s here that the show loses momentum. His plan is oddly reminiscent of the government’s big idea of creating an ill-defined ‘smart-economy.’ For the first time, McWilliams’ delivery grows wooden, as if he’s not completely convinced himself.
“Outsiders” reinforces the sense that the contrarian is a bit of a national treasure, a hugely talented communicator. It’s just not that clear if, on the bigger question of how we save the Irish economy, he has much to say.
Through July 3 at the Abbey Theatre, Middle Abbey Street, Dublin 2. Information: +353-87-87-222; http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/event/1244
Rating: ** 1/2
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(Dara Doyle writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)