Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Adam Smith, Le Grand Tour - Vanessa Oltra's Wealth of Nations

Money talks. Or at least that's the case judging by the foyer-full of 
French economists packed into a small studio theatre ticked off a 
bustling shopping street in Bordeaux city centre. The economists are 
coming to the end of a week-long conference at the nearby university, 
and clearly have plenty to say about it all. In what looks suspiciously 
like an end of term treat, they're gathered to watch a performance of 
Adam Smith, Le Grand Tour, a new play written and performed by Vanessa 
Oltra with fellow actor Frederic Kneip.

The production, by Compagnie Les Labyrinthes, which arrives at the 
French Institute this week for an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run, charts 
the journey of Mary and Fred Smith, who travel to Edinburgh in search 
of the real Adam Smith, the Kirkcaldy-born moral philosopher and 
seminal author of his 1776 tome, An Inquiry into the nature and causes 
of the Wealth of Nations. More often shortened to the catchier Wealth 
of Nations, this book is regarded as the first modern work of economics 
as we now know them.

  For director Gerard David's multi-media production of this wryly 
clever hour-long show, Oltra and Kneip travelled to Edinburgh in a real 
life quest, and film of them at Canongate Kirkyard, where Smith is 
buried, and other locations appears throughout the piece. For Oltra, 
who herself holds a PhD in Economics, and divides her time between 
acting and lecturing at Bordeaux University, Adam Smith, Le Grand Tour 
is clearly a labour of love that reflects her own fascination with 
Smith.

“Several years ago I had this idea to try to write a play about the 
authors who are supposed to be the founding fathers of liberalism,” 
Oltra says of her play's origins, “and at first I wanted to look at 
several different authors. That turned out to be not such a good idea, 
but I didn't want to make an academic play, so I decided to choose Adam 
Smith, mainly because he's supposed to be the founding father of a lot 
of things. That's according to academics, and I wanted to know why.

“I read several different biographies, and became interested in his 
personal life. He was quite a strange man, and two things interested 
me. The first thing was that, although he was named as the founding 
father of so much, of capitalism and everything else, yet in his own 
life,  he never had children. This point touched me a lot. In symbolic 
terms, it was a very strong image.

“Then I researched how Smith was commemorated in Scotland, and I was 
fascinated by the story of the statue of Smith in Edinburgh, which only 
went up as recently as 2008.”

Oltra is referring to Sandy Stoddart's statue, erected on the High 
Street, and paid for by private donations arranged by the Adam Smith 
Institute in London.

“I was very interested in this story,” Oltra says, “again, in symbolic 
terms, that it went up just as the world entered into its financial 
crisis. There is also the story of Smith's grave. I read a story by 
someone who went to visit his grave, but the gates are padlocked, and 
you can't get in.”

All of these elements have been put into what is a very personal 
impressionistic collage that praises Smith even as it questions how his 
legacy has been claimed by many for their own political purposes. 
Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was even reputed to have 
carried a copy of wealth of Nations around with her.

“People use Smith to try to explain everything,” Oltra points out, “but 
for me he has nothing to do with that. He was a philosopher. He never 
used the word capitalism in his work. You can't find the word in any of 
his books, and you can't find anything about globalisation, but people 
keep citing him as being the founding father of everything. He was very 
cautious. Although he talked about what became known as a free market 
economy, he also gave a warning, and said that if we're not careful, 
people will only be interested in making a profit.”

Oltra's specific interest in Smith stems from a set of interests she 
shares with her subject.

“It came out of a combination of my interest in economic thought and 
theatre,” she says. “Smith was a theatre lover, and I was always 
involved in both worlds as well.”

So much so, it seems, that when she began lecturing in Bordeaux, Oltra 
also enrolled in a theatre course. Since then, she has successfully  in 
both pursuits. The character of Mary Smith in Adam Smith, Le Grand 
Voyage is clearly an extension of herself, and Oltra is happy to admit 
that “Ninety per cent of it is my story as well.”

After the show in Bordeaux, Oltra, Kneip and David took part in a 
discussion with the economists who made up their audience. This was no 
usual after-show talk, however, as, rather than issues about the play's 
construction and how it was presented, questions thrown at Oltra in 
particular challenged her critiques of how Smith is sometimes 
perceived. A former lecturer of Oltra's even went so far as to ask her 
why she was increasingly critical of how economics is taught, and if 
she applies it to her own teaching.

“We have a certain degree of freedom,” she says, diplomatically,  “but 
you also have to respect certain things. I try to do things 
differently, but there has to be a balance.”

Given her very personal views of Smith, what, one wonders, does Oltra 
think that Smith's real legacy is?

“For me,” she says, “the most important contribution was his Theory of 
Moral Sentiment, which he wrote seventeen years before Wealth of 
Nations. He described human nature so precisely, and we can learn so 
much from that about things, much more than we can from Wealth of 
Nations.”

Adam Smith, Le Grand Tour, French Institute until August 25th, 3pm.
www.adamsmithlegrandtour.com

The Herald, August 6th 2013

ends

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