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'The Money' is Melbourne Festival's most exciting social experiment yet

★★★ 

Eight "benefactors" sit around a big wooden table in the Prahran Council Chambers while the rest of us – the silent witnesses – watch on from the gallery. There is an ominous knock on the Chambers’ door. A hefty secure briefcase is delivered to the facilitator. As stern as a prison guard, she lays out the contract, the props, the rules, and, of course, the cash. Welcome to The Money:an interactive, immersive theatre game from Exeter-based British group Kaleider that has reached Melbourne after successful tours through Europe and China. The benefactors are given 60 minutes to come up with a unanimous decision on how to spend the money, albeit, with a catch: it cannot go to a registered charity, and it cannot be divided among the benefactors. Should no decision be reached, it will roll over to the next performance. This is real money, with real consequences.
 
The intrigue and interest in each performance of The Money would vary greatly, as much is dependent on who is sitting around the table. On this occasion, the majority work in the arts, which informs much of the discussion about how best to utilise the money. The guidelines are broad, and money can be an uncomfortable conversation topic at the best of time, let alone between strangers, which makes for a fascinating scenario.
 
Curiously, two benefactors immediately excuse themselves by striking the gong, and joining the silent witnesses on the sidelines, not wanting to participate in the discussion. As the neon countdown clock ticks away, different members of the benefactors’ group suggest various altruistic options to promote their own artistic practise or those of others, whilst the philanthropist in the group suggests ways of growing the money.
 
As the conversation goes around the table, the bigger personalities begin to take the lead in the discussion, and perhaps from frustration at where the conversation is going, a former benefactor buys back in after 20 minutes suggesting an alternative philanthropic idea of donating to an NGO, rather than an artist.
 
Here is where the show starts to take shape. The conversation morphs from polite, altruistic ideas, to questioning the validity of others’ suggestions. More and more silent witnesses fidget with their wallets, several deciding to buy in and add to the conversation. In many ways, it feels like a university tutorial discussion minus a moderator; a pleasant discussion becoming a more heated debate, that begins to stray from the matter at hand to broader social attitudes. It is here where The Money succeeds as a concept. Even with noble intentions, common ground is not so easily found.
 
As the clock ticks down, tension rises and the louder voices further dominate the conversation. Everything points to the NGO idea taking the lead. That is, until the ideas are put to a vote and the quiet majority rule in favour of arts patronage. A lesson well-learnt by many political leaders: do not take your constituents for granted.
 
Whilst the contract is signed by all benefactors in the last seconds, there is a sense that not all are completely satisfied with the outcome. From the perspective of a silent witness, whilst the viewing can be incredibly frustrating at times, it can also very engaging. The patter around the concept: the secure briefcase, the stern facilitator, are a bit laboured and kitsch, however as a whole, it is an engaging piece of immersive art.
 
BY EBEN ROJTER