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Enron

Lucy Prebble
Headlong Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and Royal Court Theatre
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
(2010)

Enron production photo

As the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed in 2001 from a terrorist attack, a more recent symbol of US capitalism, the Enron energy company, was collapsing in the largest-ever corporate bankruptcy and the biggest financial scandal of modern times. Lucy Prebble's award-winning play charts the rise and fall of the company.

Company founder Kenneth Lay appoints Jeffrey Skilling as his new CEO and he wants to divert the company's resources from supplying gas and oil to forming a stock market for trading gas and electricity as financial instruments just like stocks and shares. Skilling's high-pressure, macho company environment revolves around the 'mark-to-market' accounting system to value a company based on the market value of the deals it has in place rather than its actual assets and cash reserves.

When the deals don't arise and the profits turn into massive losses, Skilling has his chief financial officer Andrew Fastow create a network of small companies whose only purpose is to swallow up the debts of Enron so that the books still show massive profits to investors. The company uses its might to bully or bribe accountants, lawyers and journalists into turning a blind eye, and also, when the state of California introduces the deregulated power market that Enron had been lobbying its friends in the Bush family for, it causes massive power cuts in order to drive up the price of energy.

As is now well-known, the company's share price collapsed in 2001 causing investors and employees to lose their savings and pensions and the people who ran the company were convicted of fraud and conspiracy.

Prebble's play is a chronological account of these events, but is dressed up with projections, dance, songs, puppets and various other dramatic devices. Fastow gave his companies names like Jedi and Raptors, and so we have a choreographed scene with light sabres and Fastow lives in a dark basement feeding money to dinosaurs with glowing red eyes wearing suits and becomes more primal as the play goes on. Real news footage of events at the time including the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal and the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida are projected on the front of the skyscraper-like gauze at the back, which also contains two levels of staging behind it.

Some of these effects look good, especially the superb use of projections and gauze effects together with the LED stock ticker, but some of the techniques used come across as rather gratuitous and gimmicky. The metaphors of the three blind mice and the raptors are interesting, but seeing them doesn't really add to our understanding or enjoyment of the plot, and these puppet effects don't happen often enough to constitute a production style. They are often rather simplistic, even to the point of being a little infantile.

It comes across as though writer Prebble and director Rupert Goold were nervous about putting on a play that purely told the story of a financial scandal in case it only appealed to accountants and so felt they had to keep diverting the audience with a song or a puppet show every so often to stop them from getting bored. The fact is, the extended scenes about how the characters manipulate the company and the law to commit the fraud can be quite interesting to follow, whereas it can be easy for the attention to wander and the wrapped sweets to come out during the cabaret turns.

There are some great performances from Corey Johnson as the blinkered, driven Jeffrey Skilling, Paul Chahidi as social outcast and brilliant financial mind Andy Fastow, Sara Stewart as designer fashion wearing executive Claudia Roe who loses out to Skilling for the CEO's job and Clive Francis as Ken Lay who takes a hands-off approach to the company so he can retire to the golf course. Visually, designer Anthony Ward and video designer Jon Driscoll have created a look that at times is stunning.

However ultimately it is an interesting story with some interesting effects that do not all gel together, and much of it is gimmicky and unnecessary. The show failed spectacularly on Broadway; this may be because of the show's implication that the principals of Enron are the principals of American capitalism, or perhaps the shock of showing the fall of the twin towers as a parallel to the fall of Enron, or perhaps simply because a serious and reasonably well-told story is constantly interrupted by superficial diversions.

If you are interested in financial scandals and the dark side of American capitalism, there is plenty here to engage you and get you thinking, but the parts that change it from a straight telling of the story are not particularly original and are really just padding.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Noël Coward Theatre

Reviewer: David Chadderton