THEATRE REVIEW: “‘Success Story” – the bittersweet smell of success in Latvia

THEATRE REVIEW: “‘Success Story” – the bittersweet smell of success in Latvia
“Success story” (Veiksmes Stasts).
By Mike Collier in Riga September 29, 2016

Not since the heyday of William Shakespeare can a paying audience have seen the keeper of a nation’s purse strings mocked, abused, humiliated and ultimately stabbed to death in front of their eyes, but that is precisely what is happening in Latvia right now in the play “Success Story” at Riga’s National Theatre. The title is so heavily ironic it is a surprise you can lift the ticket from the loose change rattling in your pocket.

The principal object of this irony is Ilmars Rimsevics, the governor of the Latvian central bank for the last 16 years (he has worked at the bank for even longer – since 1992).

Rimmo – as he is occasionally known, but only behind his back – is used as an embodiment of Latvia’s own economic “success story”, which is outlined in increasingly deranged and anarchic episodes overshadowed by the International Monetary Fund as a type of terrifying financial-imperialist drug dealer alternately pushing big-money loans, labyrinthine legislation and sadistic austerity.

Now, it must be admitted that the real Rimsevics is not a character who generally inspires much affection. His supporters call him cool in a crisis; his detractors haughty to the point of arrogance. His press conferences are renowned among Latvian journalists for being about as welcoming as a Hungarian border guard and as for face-to-face interviews... well, let’s just draw a veil over the whole thing.

Plenty of other familiar figures make appearances too (including former PMs Valdis Dombrovskis and Ivars Godmanis; finance ministers Andris Vilks, Einars Repse and Atis Slakteris; and even Christine Lagarde of the IMF) as writer Janis Balodis brilliantly incorporates speeches, conference material and archive newspaper reports from Latvia’s various economic crises into the dialogue so that we get a disconcerting double take of our monetary masters all striking poses and congratulating each other on their genius and far-sightedness, while at the same time seeing them as a clusterbomb of unresolved neuroses hampered by a childish inability to think beyond data, pie charts and ill-defined structural reforms.

Nowhere is this more effective than an imaginative recreation of the 2012 IMF conference in Riga designed to champion the benefits of hardcore austerity to the wider world. Your correspondent was there at the time and spoke to everyone depicted on stage – the effect of seeing it re-cast as a bizarre playground circus brought the memories flooding back, including a well-intentioned but half-hearted effort by part-time economist and self-styled “semiotician and composer” Armands Strazds to interrupt the mutual congratulation society and form a Social Democratic party – an aim foiled by the simple expedient of a rival party registering the same name first.

The satirising of the financial imperium gets progressively more over-the-top and entertaining (peaking with a hilarious 1990s consumerist take on 1930s Berlin cabaret), but “Success Story” is not without its problems. A couple of times it veers close to rather obvious anti-Americanism, and a series of interludes in which we hear real people telling the other side of the success story years – no running water, tiny wages, hopelessness – shows the huge gap in the experiences of the elite and the general population but also lets the manic energy of the other sections seep away. The grotesque is far more entertaining than the realism.

But despite an ending in which the audience is subjected to ‘Shock Therapy’ of its own – a Guantanamo Bay-style assault involving arc lights, death metal and periods of sensory deprivation in which the audience is ordered: “Say: I like Ilmars Rimsevics!” Balodis and director Valters Silis also manage the seemingly impossible: to elicit sympathy for Rimsevics.

After sitting down and reading his slightly naïve letters from a trip to the US as a young man, which initially just ups his ridiculousness quotient, Rimmo faces the audience and challenges: “If you were top of your class, if you had spent three years studying in America and four years studying in Latvia, would you have done any differently? Who would have done differently?”

Soon after, as his critics advance on him with daggers like Hamlet stalking poor old Polonius, the faces of the audience show extreme discomfort – Rimmo may not be exactly a charmer but isn’t stabbing him to death going just a teensy bit too far?

It’s unlikely Rimsevics (or indeed any of those satirized) will want to see the depiction of himself upon the stage – but the audience was notable for the presence of a fair few economic high-fliers.

Coincidentally the day on which your reviewer saw “Success Story” was also the day Rimsevics was doing his own real-life stand-up routine at the Latvian central bank’s annual conference, pushing compulsory private health insurance as the latest must-do structural reform (while simultaneously calling for no new taxes). Remarkably, “Success Story” even managed to incorporate the healthcare reforms into its text with a suggestion the move might see Rimmo “become a millionaire in time for the next crisis to hit”.

Perhaps it is an uncharitable assumption but it just goes to show – there are two sides to every success story.

“Success story” (Veiksmes Stasts) is at the Latvian National Theatre through October and November.