“Excuse me, sir. Will you take off your clothes?” There are times when I think that the FT does not pay me enough. A few minutes later, it’s suggested that the great Jordan Belfort wants to sleep with me. There are times when I know that the FT does not pay me enough.
Being paid enough — hey, more than enough — is at the heart of The Wolf of Wall Street. If you haven’t seen the Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it is the relatively true story of how one man manipulates the market, while devouring most of the drugs in Long Island. It’s basically Hunter S Thompson does stock fraud. Belfort earned tens of millions of dollars, and 22 months in jail.
“I’ve been a rich man and I’ve been a poor man, and I choose rich every f***ing time!” the antihero tells the stockbrokers at his corrupt firm Stratton Oakmont during the film’s crescendo. “At least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of a limo wearing a $2,000 suit and $40,000 gold f***ing watch!”
The Wolf is now in London as an immersive theatre show, offering us all the chance to “become a Master of the Universe with the brokers who broke Wall Street”. And this is how I ended up in Moorgate, being told to take my clothes off and to prepare for an intimate encounter with the boss. (Key lesson: if you smile gormlessly, such bad things go away eventually.)
The venue is a row of disused townhouses — fitted out with bars on the ground floor, a nightclub-style basement and a maze of upstairs rooms. It’s hastily assembled, with plyboard, jagged brickwork and loose wiring. Never mind the FBI, I’d worry about a raid by the Health and Safety Executive.
The real curiosity about the immersive Wolf is not the plot or even the setting — it’s the cultural context. Even in 2013, when the film debuted, the story was a throwback to inexcusable excesses. Since then, we’ve had #MeToo, increased gender pay fights and even rules banning gender stereotyping in British TV adverts.
The Wolf’s super-alpha-male behaviour has fallen out of fashion quicker than a fur coat made of rescue kittens. There is barely one scene that complies with the FT’s full list of company values, and I can say that confidently even without knowing what the FT’s full list of company values is.
We know that male chauvinists have hunted happily in the office environment. But they now face apex predators — HR, compliance, diversity campaigns. At least in my experience, the office is generally now not where men go to misbehave. For all the scandals, men are more likely to be offensive in pubs, football grounds or public transport. If you think free speech is curtailed in universities, try making a tasteless joke at the office.
At work the consequences of misconduct are clear and the chances of anonymity are zero. The most “colourful” characters — such as Margaret Thatcher’s public relations guru Tim Bell, who died last month — found themselves out of step. Many of those accused of misconduct — Harvey Weinstein, Philip Green — didn’t operate in conventional corporate settings.
The Wolf therefore falls into a category with Fight Club, white-collar boxing and the YouTube videos of psychologist Jordan D Peterson — attempts to salvage red-blooded machismo for the age of routine office jobs. There are men who crave something but struggle to identify what it legitimately can be.
Can you nod vigorously about diversity during the day then celebrate Jordan Belfort by night? Or, as Sigmund Freud argued, is there no such thing as a joke? My wife, it seems, leans towards Freud. She barely tolerated the endless scenes of prostitutes in the film. When I suggest coming to the immersive version, she discovers she has other plans. This left me alone to find out whether I could be a Wolf of Wall Street, and whether I even wanted to be.
The masters of immersive Wolf have organised a press night, but it’s not until October. As the brokers tell dumb stock investors in the Wolf film, “by the time you read about it in the Wall Street Journal, it’s already too late”. I needed to get in on the metaphorical ground floor.
So I went on the opening night, and found myself on the literal ground floor, what seemed like a construction site with several bouncers. By coincidence, this was the same day that Justin Trudeau was apologising for dressing up in blackface. Finally, something that makes the Wolf look progressive.
Before I even arrived, however, I knew that this would not be full-throttle Wolf. The immersive Wolf is an inclusive experience: out go the dwarf-throwing and goldfish-swallowing; in come gender-diverse toilets and vegan and gluten-free meal options.
In the film Belfort recounts the various strengths of his drug stupors — including the “tingle phase”, the “slur phase” and the “drool phase”. In the theatre, “any patron found in the possession of any illegal substances will be removed and banned from the premises”.
At least we’ll be able to unfurl wads of $100 bills like true Stratton Oakmont brokers, right? “Please note,” says the show’s website, “the bar is CARD ONLY.” Have these guys even seen the film, I start asking.
There’s a sign warning us of simulated sex scenes. A staff member’s T-shirt says: “Consent is Essential”. The loudspeaker warns us early on that we may be “triggered”, and there is a “safe space” located in the building. These things are only funny because they are so off-brand — like a Formula One racecourse with a cycle rack.
Ollie Tilney plays stockbroker Jordan Belfort
The FT’s Henry Mance © Anna Gordon
But if the act has changed, then the audience hasn’t necessarily. I surveyed my fellow wannabe Masters of the Universe. I did not find out what their actual jobs were. But I can tell you that one man looked at a blurred selfie of himself and two friends and concluded aloud, “God, I look good”. I discovered that the men who go to immersive Wolf are the type who put one hand against the wall when they use a urinal.
My favourite character had three shirt buttons undone and what he believed to be valuable inside information. “I do have a few tips,” he said, leaning towards his companions so they could almost smell his bravado. “Downstairs is very good.” Perhaps inside every Big Four accountant is a Stratton Oakmont trader waiting to escape. My fellow attendees had the stockbrokers’ gift — they probably could even sell shares in WeWork. On the downstairs tables were fake landlines for us to sell garbage stocks. I surveyed the competition, and had a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be taking home much of the bonus pool.
If you haven’t been to immersive theatre before, I won’t spoil the ridiculousness. Suffice to say, the premise is you can either become a trader with Belfort or an investigator helping the FBI take him down. “You’re either with him or you’re against him,” the blurb screams.
The set-up starts with Roula Khalaf, a Forbes journalist (and now deputy editor of the Financial Times), visiting Oakmont’s offices. In real life, and now in art, Khalaf exposed Belfort’s dodgy practices — bizarrely attracting more greedy traders to the firm, as well as raising the suspicions of the FBI. The show chronicles how Belfort and his allies kept living life to the full, before desperately smuggling millions of dollars to Switzerland, as the FBI circled.
Despite the blurb, we didn’t get to choose our team. Instead we were swept up in groups of 10-20 by whichever character was nearby, and led to a room to watch part of the plot unfold. The upshot is that we spent the night not quite sure whether we were in the right place. “Downstairs they’re working for the f***ing good guys,” lamented one audience member, stuck with the FBI. By the good guys, of course, he meant the bad guys.
For the ambitious among us, this was no problem. They simply walked out of the groups that they have been herded into, through the makeshift plywood doors, and went to find better ones. It’s easy to infer how these guys operate in the workplace. Me, I stayed with the FBI for a while — out of politeness, rather than morality.
The Wolf holds the Guinness World Record for swearing in a film, with the F-word alone used at a rate of 2.81 times per minute for nearly three hours. The theatre is true to this legacy. Almost the first words that I heard were “Excuse me, Denise. Get the f*** out of here.” That rather set the tone.
The blurb assured attendees that “if you prefer to observe from the sidelines, nobody will mind”. Actually the problem is the opposite: in past immersive theatre in New York and London, there have been reports of audience members assaulting and groping the actors.
As the saying goes, girls will be girls, and boys will be Neanderthals.
So the immersive Wolf’s actors are equipped with personal alarms; security guards loom in the background. This does rather limit the chances for participation. When one (female) audience member helpfully tried to stuff dollars in the top of an actor — who was smuggling cash to Switzerland — she was politely told her assistance was not required.
But when we could join in, we did. “When I say Stratton — you say Oakmont,” instructs a character. “Stratton!” We responded: “Oakmont!” After a few renditions, I’m not even sure we were being ironic. It was quite cathartic. I was less sure about the next chant: “F*** the press.” That one was not so cathartic and definitely ironic, right?
The Wolf film did not just celebrate corruption; it may have embodied it. The US justice department alleges that it was financed partly by money stolen from Malaysia’s national 1MDB fund. The producer, Riza Aziz, faces trial in Malaysia accused of laundering $248m; he denies the charges. (To compound Malaysians’ outrage, Wolf was never screened in the country, because of its explicit content.)
Stratton Oakmont specialised in dodgy initial public offerings. So it’s fitting that the Wolf theatre show had to cancel a week of performances after the first night, due to problems with the building. Ticket-holders presumably had an immersive insight into being a Stratton client.
In my three and a half hours at the show, I didn’t see anyone get hurt — or any audience members out of control. But a sizeable proportion of us attendees were champing at the bit — desperate to see what we could get away with.
When Belfort and his number two, Donnie, dug into a bottle of pills, a drunk man in pinstripes and red braces started heckling. “Share them out!” he said, evidently keen to put the toxic in toxic masculinity. “Sharing is caring! Sharing is caring!” Imagine my astonishment when it transpired his name was Rupert.
At one point, a blonde-haired guy I’d never met tried surreptitiously to put a fake $100 note on my head. He then pretended he hadn’t done it. Who acts like that? Do social norms break down this quickly? I worried that I had signed up for a theatrical re-enactment of the Stanford prison experiment.
At least I was there alone. Another man wanted to leave the remains of his can of beer. “What do you mean you’re drunk?” said a co-worker. “It’s illegal! You’ve got to finish it.” There was a moment in the latter stages of the show when an audience member, participating in the plot, pretended for a joke to be a woman. “Non-binary!” shouts his friend, laughing. Would he have shouted that in the office? I guess not. Would he have liked to go a bit further? I guess so.
Belfort himself is now at peace with the law. He was released from jail in 2006 and currently works as a motivational speaker on ethics and integrity (of course). “Greed is not good. Greed is destructive. It’s ambition that’s good,” he tells audiences. “Money comes as a byproduct of giving value . . . I had it backwards.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, which has no place in the immersive Wolf. Belfort sells morality in his motivational speeches, and amorality in his theatre production. Heads he wins, tails you lose.
Jordan Belfort at The Oxford Union last year © The Oxford Union/Shutterstock
The theatrical Wolf is directed by Alexander Wright, whose previous immersive outing, The Great Gatsby, is moving to the West End in October. The show has an ad hoc feel. The actors often struggle to keep the attention of groups of tipsy office workers. There are some twists and enjoyable singalongs to Nirvana, Radiohead and Whitney Houston. However, you can’t replace Martin Scorsese that easily.
The script is not that rich or funny, leaving a lot to the physicality of the performances. Ollie Tilney, playing Belfort, captures some of the demented energy of DiCaprio. Razak Osman, as an FBI agent, and Naail Ishaq, as a trader, inject fun. The American accents will presumably improve during the show’s run. Meanwhile, the stage version of Khalaf (Ivy Corbin) has dyed blond hair and can’t function without coffee. Is that true to life? Of course it isn’t, but remember: this is a show about a trader who worked on Long Island but dubbed himself the “Wolf of Wall Street”. Accuracy isn’t included in the ticket price.
Unlike other financial wrongdoing tales, such as Michael Lewis’s The Big Short or Margin Call, starring Kevin Spacey, the Wolf doesn’t explain the intricacies of the money markets — it focuses on the psychology of those who want money and women. It is a celebration: you want Belfort to succeed, because if not why are we all here?
I didn’t learn how to sell stock, but I imbibed the idea that Belfort was a pioneering rogue — instead of a crook who stole stupid people’s savings. If the National Crime Agency had stormed the building at the show’s end, I wouldn’t have given away the boss’s whereabouts.
The real Belfort is a master salesman. In the film he hammers home that the first step to selling anything is to create a pressing demand — you’re selling a pencil, convince your shopper that they need to write something down. Does the immersive Wolf convince the audience that they should aspire to be “bloodthirsty brokers”? Or does it sate that desire to misbehave?
I felt more the latter. Pumping stocks by phone is no longer a career option; anyway, most of us audience members were the wrong side of 30 (Belfort was out of business aged 34, convicted by 37). The creepier corners of the City are being dusted clean: Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, has banned boozy lunches, and promised to improve standards after finding that almost 500 employees had witnessed sexual harassment in the past year. Soon, perhaps, there will be Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn and President Elizabeth Warren, and the finance industry will be a pariah state.
But I also had the sense that there is a gap in the market for firms where everyone acts like a juvenile jerk. We indulge Belfort because we are nostalgic for an age of one-dimensional masculinity. Emotional depth and shared parental leave still aren’t for everyone. Life was simpler in the past.
About 10.30pm, I wandered to the exit to find that Rupert — his red braces still on, his demand for drugs still unsatisfied — was trying to re-enter the building. The bouncer blocked his path, and so my pinstriped friend turned round, and introduced himself to another man on the pavement. “Do you work in the City?” he said. The man turned out to be French. “Quelle partie de la France?” inquired Rupert.
As I left, they seemed on course for a profitable friendship. But somehow I didn’t feel I was missing out. The late comic Jeremy Hardy once joked about a politician: “[She’s] a character, in the sense that it would be better if she were fictional.” That’s how I felt about Jordan Belfort. Maybe I didn’t need to meet the real wolves of Wall Street. Maybe the FT does pay me enough after all.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief feature writer
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