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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Enron
Royal Court Theatre Autumn 2009; Noel Coward Theatre 2010

Lucy Prebble's account of one of the biggest financial bubbles in history, and Rupert Goold's high-energy production, are part history and economics lesson, part cautionary fable, and part celebration of the show's own theatrical inventiveness.

The play tells its complex story with extraordinary clarity, creates rounded and even tragic characters out of the semi-anonymous businessmen at its centre and packages it all in a razzle-dazzle of clever and entertaining staging effects. And even if you leave with the vague sense that there may have been less there than met the eye, there's no doubt that the ride itself is a lot of fun.

Enron was an old-fashioned Texas oil and gas company that CEO Jeffrey Skilling converted into a trading company in the 1990s, a kind of stock market for other companies' energy products, buying and selling on without ever taking actual possession. Skilling introduced the legal but misleading practice of booking potential future gains from trades as actual present profits, generating numbers that made him a Wall Street hero and giving what was actually a money-losing company an inflated stock price.

(One of the play's cautionary moral lessons is that, at least for a while, everything is worth what people are willing to pay for it, regardless of any objective value, though reality is likely to reappear eventually - a lesson Wall Street forgot a few years later in the dot-com bubble and that banks forgot a few years further on as they rushed to buy up each other's bad mortgages.)

As the gap between Enron's declared profits and actual losses reached into the billions of dollars, Skilling and financial wizard Andy Fastow drove bodily through a tiny legal loophole, burying Enron's losses in dummy companies to keep them off the parent's books. But this construct was so flimsy that all it took were a few whispers of doubt on Wall Street for it to collapse, destroying the company (and the lives of employees whose pension funds were in company stock) and sending its officers to jail.

That I could just give that brief account of events I knew almost nothing about a day ago is a testament to Prebble's skilled story-telling, and that I enjoyed learning it is due to her and director Goold's very imaginative presentation of the lesson.

The play romps through Enron's history, punctuating imagined encounters among the chief players with interludes of song, dance, newsreel footage, mock TV commercials and pop culture references that are not only fun in themselves but actually do illuminate and clarify the issues.

Fastow's pet name for the debt-eating dummy companies was raptors, after the voracious little dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and raptors in business suits start roaming the stage. When Skilling's energy traders move on California electricity (almost bankrupting the state in the process), they become Jedi knights gleefully brandishing their light sabres.

The banking house Lehman Brothers, tripping over itself in its eagerness to invest, is represented as comic Siamese twins, while the 'Don't tell us anything - just keep making money' Enron board of directors are three blind mice.

None of this is gratuitous - it all does give not just information but a real sense of the excitement and growing perilousness of the Enron adventure and a guess at what the people involved might have been like.

The only criticism is that Prebble strains to make a tragedy or at least a very big cautionary tale out of it, and doesn't quite succeed, so that you may at some point (perhaps only as you leave the theatre) remember that Prebble's colourful antiheroes were probably considerably less sympathetic money-grubbing bastards.

Samuel West certainly plays Skilling as a tragic hero, a real visionary convinced that his plan for Enron will work if he can only keep the bubble aloft long enough, that blindness to reality ultimately bringing him down. We may see his folly and hubris, as we do with classic tragic heroes, but West also shows us that only a very special kind of man is capable of such a rise and of such a fall.

Tom Goodman-Hill takes Fastow on a remarkable character arc, from socially inept number-cruncher to master of his dummy-company domain to haunted caretaker-prisoner of his raptors.

Tim Pigott-Smith as company founder Ken Lay smoothly embodies the carefully-maintained ignorance of details that enables him to collect his bonuses while socialising with Presidents and losing no sleep on the way up or down, and Amanda Drew injects loads of vicious energy into the role of Skilling's one enemy within the company.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Enron - Royal Court 2009