Lucy Prebble's Enron hits theatrical heights in this spectacular story of financial wheeler dealing and fraud
“And the only difference between me and the people judging me is they weren’t smart enough to do what we did.”
Lucy Prebble has made theatre wait a long time for her second play since the success of The Sugar Syndrome at the Royal Court in 2003 but I would gladly wait another six years for a play only half as good as her latest. Of course with Rupert Goold at the director’s helm, we knew Enron would be very exciting theatre, but even my high expectations were exceeded by this dazzlingly intelligent and physical production.
Enron is about the creative accounting adopted by the Texan energy giant to disguise their losses and debts that gives creativity a bad name. The bubble burst and down tumbled two giants, Enron and accountants Arthur Andersen, as well as many Enron employees who lost not only their jobs but all their capital after using it to purchase the company’s shares.
So how do we turn the tedium of financial balance sheets and stock market registers into living theatre? With innovative skill, that’s how!
Three companies have collaborated on Enron, Headlong which is Rupert Goold’s production and touring company, the Royal Court and the Festival Theatre Chichester where Enron opened in the summer in the Minerva Theatre. The anticipation has been increased by all 21,800 tickets selling out for the six week run at the Royal Court on the strength of the reviews from Chichester. But the excitement is there from the beginning in Mark Henderson’s vertical blue tube neon lighting, knee high columns of light which change colour, are raised or manipulated to form frames of light.
The play opens with a parade of the three blind mice and a Texan voice drawls an introduction to the company and tells us that this is only one version of the truth. Suited company men and women wheel on designer office chairs singing “The Star Spangled Banner”. This is Houston Texas where it is said the women wear their diamonds in the middle of the day. We meet Kenneth Lay (Tim Pigott-Smith) and Claudia Roe (Amanda Drew): she is fictitious, and comes to represent the opposition to new recruit, overweight, geeky, Harvard MBA, Jeffrey Skilling (Sam West) who wants to introduce to Enron the concept of “mark to market”, the opportunity to trade virtually in future profits generated by an idea.
It is the images which are so unforgettable. Anthony Ward designs the cityscape. The skyscraper tower backdrop of red moving stock market price projections with the price of Enron shares highlighted in yellow. The choreography of the market traders in their red and black trading jackets, either in exhilaration or meltdown. The three blind mice seem to be on the board of directors. A slimmed down Skilling’s interview of Andy Fastow takes place in the gym on treadmills, which Skilling increases the speed of, a reference to the pressure on his employee. The paper and ash fallout from 9/11 as Ken Lay talks through the cloud of the explosion projected on to the top of tower. The velociraptors with their red lit eyes, the phoney string of Raptor companies which company accountant Andy Falstow (Tom Goodman-Hill) uses to generate funds for the company whilst at the same time hiding Enron’s debts, but which turn into an episode of When Pets Go Bad. Video clips remind us of the era, including President Clinton’s spin on Lewinsky.
When Lucy Prebble had originally approached Rupert Goold some years back, we are told by Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times that it was a musical she had in mind. Although Enron is now a play with music, Scott Ambler’s choreography energises the market places, often to wild techno music, the traders hold capitalism’s hero Jeff Skilling aloft as we lead up to the raucous party for the Year 2000. There are ho downs and parties galore and lots of glorious staging to enjoy.
The Lehman brothers are a comic pair of Siamese twins wearing the same giant suit for some horse trading to inflate the price of Enron’s shares by selecting it as a smart buy and so generating the reward in return of business for their own bank. The election brings George W’s win backed by Ken Lay and Enron celebrate the deregulation of electricity, staged as an army with light sabres in California, where blackouts dominate the news. We are told that Enron has called their strategy in California, Death Star.
Sam West with his hair straightened bears more than a little resemblance to Skilling. His portrait is not all ambition but we feel this is a businessman doing what business intends him to do. As he says, if it hadn’t been for 9/11 he might have got away with it. Remember Skilling was also the one promoting wind farms and alternative energy. I think West’s performance is remarkable in its complexity and I hope he will go to Broadway. We see him near the end having a nervous breakdown on the streets of New York.
Amanda Drew as Claudia Roe, the power dressed, ballsy woman with the big hair, is well cast. There is no vulnerability in her performance even when she loses out as Chief Executive to Skilling and longer term, she is a winner as she sells her Enron shares early. Tim Pigott-Smith is too tall and has too much hair to look anything like Ken Lay but his likeable performance has a Texan bonhomie laced with plenty of self belief and arrogance. The ensemble cast do a brilliant job with the bit parts. I loved the direction of the news anchorwomen as they pivot for the television camera.
Enron is booked into a four month run at the Noêl Coward Theatre in London’s West End and thence to Broadway. Columbia Pictures have acquired the rights to film it with Lucy Prebble writing the script. Enron is at turns jokey and serious, it makes you laugh but it also makes you think, it is exciting theatre, with a great script and fine movement, as near perfect as I’ve seen and I fully expect it to scoop the theatre awards for 2009, Best New Play, Best Director, Best Lighting, Best Performance.
SPOILER ALERT If you want to know the outcome read on, if not don’t. . .
9/11 brings the crash and the Senate Committee and trials. Lay, Skilling and Falstow all plead the Fifth and Lay’s death from a heart attack prevents his conviction. Falstow plea bargains and gets six years, but Skilling, accused of fraud, conspiracy and insider dealing, he has sold his shares after he has left Enron but knew that bankruptcy was imminent, is sent to prison for 24 years and four months. As a postscript to the play, Skilling is still appealing his sentence.
Written by Lucy Prebble
Directed by Rupert Goold
A joint production between Headlong, the Royal Court and Chichester Festival Theatre
Director: Rupert Goold
Designer: Anthony Ward
Movement: Scott Ambler
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Music and Sound Designer: Adam Cork
Video Design: Jon Driscoll
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Royal Court on 7th November 2009. Then, transferred to the Noel Coward Theatre with a cast change and played from 16th January 2010 until 14th August 2010
The Royal Court
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
London SW1W 8AS
Tube: Sloane Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Royal Court on 26th September 2009