Marvel (Alma Emo) is a professional escort trafficked as a child from Liberia. She now works in Dublin under the management of the unseen but omnipresent Goran, a Croatian ‘businessman’ who has entrusted €230m to futures and hedge fund trader Dion (Liam Hourican). Part of their deal involves Dion enjoying the company of Marvel on a regular basis, a relationship based on financial transactions but seen to grow into a co-dependent romance as the action progresses.
As the play begins, however, a point of crisis has been reached. Specifically, it is September 28, 2008 and the markets have crashed. Goran’s hundreds of millions are gone and Dion is facing a bleak (possibly short) future, and whatever point of personal crisis he and Marvel had reached suddenly doesn’t matter. The play reveals in flashback how these individuals came to this time and place, and briefly moves forward to resolve the story before cycling back in yet another flashback to end exactly where it began.
Elizabeth Moynihan’s script makes specific and repeated use of key phrases and motifs interlinking the professions of prostitution and financial services. “Beauty is an unstable commodity,” says Marvel, who later snaps “I am not a commodity” to the commodities and futures trader. When discussing their mutual (and dangerous) business partner Goran, Marvel observes “You got into bed with him too.” Though these appositions are apt they are also obvious, and there are few linguistic or dramatic surprises in this play. Every beat and note is underlined, repeated and underlined again, and at 85 minutes the play feels underdeveloped and overlong.
Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks attempts to enliven proceedings by using the flashbacks to amplify the characters’ distance from one another by their placement on the stage. During the ‘present’ (September 28th 2008) they are proximate in a bedroom (there’s a bed, but it takes a long time before they share it). In the ‘past’ the two actors sit or stand on opposites sides of the stage although they supposedly share the same space (usually a table – at a restaurant, Cheltenham, a coffee shop, etc.). Eoin Lennon’s lighting and Denis Clohessy’s sound design assist with this, suggesting changes in location by environmental ambiance. It’s a device that works on paper, but in execution this also becomes wearisome, and the constant oscillation between these two basic set-ups doesn’t come with any development or refinement. It’s just the same pattern – back and forth in time, closer and further apart in space, and in spite of what is supposed to be happening, there is no discernible growth or depth in how these people relate.
Both characters are essentially unsympathetic and unfeeling. This is symptomatic of their mutual professional detachment, of course – but there is no charge between the characters and no heat between the actors. Marvel is responding pragmatically to her traumatic childhood and bleak prospects, and coldly describes the rational transactions she has engaged in, from selling her body as a 14 year old to accepting regular payments from Dion to be his exclusive mistress while being ‘married’ to Goran. Alma Eno’s precise diction reinforces the unsentimental, almost casual matter-of-factness of it all, and in so doing drains it of much of its drama. Dion, meanwhile, seems not actually designed to make us laugh when he says “How are we supposed to survive on a few hundred thousand?” but the line did generate a big response more appropriate to Ross O’Carroll-Kelly than this deadly serious suicidal post-Crash one percenter.
It was never going to be easy to ask an audience to empathise with this man, but Liam Hourican has difficulty juggling his shifting moods, from imperious master of the universe to being sort of love-lorn (he still won’t leave his wife), and from exhibiting half-cocked bravado (he almost makes a stand when Marvel is attacked by drunken footballers... but he doesn’t) to hysterical anger. There’s too much going on, and none of it increases our interest in the character, so his fate ultimately doesn’t matter. Frankly, why would it, when the consequences of his actions don’t affect him for long (he has no future, geddit?) and when the rather poorly realised romance is itself pretty much moribund when the ‘drama’ of the market crash happens?
Too much about this play just doesn’t work. It has a polemical heart that attempts to address the roots of contemporary socio-economic dysfunction by way of foregrounding sexual exploitation, but it articulates its position quickly and then has nowhere to go. The characters do not command our attention or elicit our sympathy, making the journey to the obvious resolution long and unrewarding.