What’s the most compelling piece of theatre you’ve ever seen? Some may name a legendary production of Hamlet they once saw, others might maintain that nothing will ever be more dramatic than the latest groundbreaking one-man play, more people would probably cite a scene from a gritty American box-set like Breaking Bad or The Wire.

Me, I can say with absolute certainty that the best and most compelling piece of theatre I’ve ever had the fortune to witness is this short six and a half minute clip from the popular television game show Golden Balls.

For those of you unfamiliar with the format (as I was), all you need to know is that it comes down to two people sitting at a table with two options: they can either choose a ball which has the word ‘split’ inside it or one which says ‘steal’. If they both choose split the money they have amassed is split between them, if both choose steal they get nothing, but, if one of them chooses steal that person wins all the money.

You couldn’t write this stuff

This clip has the perfect dramatic structure: the set-up, the heightening of tension leading to the climax, the shock twist that leaves the audience gasping. It has moments of real dramatic weight and pathos- Man A relating a nugget of wisdom imparted to him by his (presumably late) father ‘a man who doesn’t keep his word is not a man’, Man B earnestly imploring Man A to trust him-  as well as comedy both verbal and physical. The host’s wry commentary, which is strangely reminiscent of a jocular uncle (‘these people have got to get up for breakfast!’), Man A’s utter disbelief at the actions of the man sitting opposite him expressed in the immortal line ‘where’s your brains coming from’, Man B pointing to his head in an indescribably unique gesture; you couldn’t write this stuff.

Hamlet ain’t got nothing on golden balls

It contains character arcs- yes, character arcs- and the progression of a layered and complex relationship compressed into mere minutes. The two men sat at that table begin as strangers and tentative allies, quickly transforming into enemies after a shocking betrayal in the insistence of Man B that he will choose steal, and end up as true partners and friends. An apparent villain is unmasked as a clever hero, who uses guile to ensure the best outcome for both of them, and the man of honour may not be as honourable, or as innocent, as first thought.

This is live theatre at its finest

It even has the perfect ending, a scene of incongruous irrelevance which subverts the audience’s expectations for true comic effect. The tension is at a low point and the audience are complacent as Man B talks about how he’s going to spend his money on a trip to Barcelona, only for a straight-faced Man A to tell the camera he plans to respray his yacht – cue Man B’s jaw cartoonishly dropping as the clip abruptly cuts off- it’s comedic gold.

This is live theatre at its finest, and I dare anyone to disagree.


The clip that inspired this essay:

golden balls. the weirdest split or steal ever! by spinout3

Image Credits:

Header Image: Ryan Brownell via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet by James Lafayette via Wikimedia Commons



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