Saturday 26 September 2009

Enron with lightsabres

Most people probably wouldn't immediately associate the mythic weapon from George Lucas's sci-fi saga with one of the biggest corporate bankruptcies in history, but then I suppose that director Rupert Goold is not most people. However, this conflation lies of the heart of why I found his production of Lucy Prebble's new play so disappointing.

Enron (at the Royal Court Theatre) compresses the better part of a decade and a half in to just under three hours, narrating the story of the rise and fall of the Texan energy giant, focusing on its executives.

It's apparent from the start that the choice has been made that this is not straight and serious drama, perhaps the nuances of the financial system are judged insufficiently interesting for this. However, the extent to which the three blind mice who appear at the beginning add anything to the production is debatable. It is a sign of things to come.

As Andrew Fastow, eventually the company's Chief Financial Officer (and superbly played by Tom Goodman-Hill), develops elaborate shadow companies in which to hide the firm's losses and with which to prop up its share price, he is stalked by velociraptors straight out of Jurassic Park, so much so that the closing words of the first act are a quote from the movie. The culmination of this absurdist streak comes as a dozen or more traders, making waves in California's newly liberalised energy market, spend the better part of ten minutes waving lightsabres around. Now, in fairness to Goold, who among us hasn't had a fantasy of getting to play with a lightsabre (and the props are pretty convincing). It just doesn't really relate to the play, indeed it gets in the way of the drama.

You could argue this is an attempt to capture the irrational exuberance that lead to Enron's downfall, and it's illicit behaviour when the real profits didn't materialise. Certainly some such choices are justified: showing the energy traders as people shouting and waving arms is fair enough in comparison to people sitting in front of computer screens.

More generally, the play often feels to me to put razzmatazz ahead of substance. If you're looking for a straight-laced and analytical play you will not find it. Perhaps it's felt that it wouldn't be interesting or dramatic enough, but I can't help feeling it's dumbed down a little. Did we really need the slightly patronising and fourth-wall-breaking explanation of what a rating agent does?

Perhaps if some sequences, such as the rather unmemorable song about market trading, or other movement based sequences, had been cut there would have been time for something slightly more intellectual. According to the Wall Street Journal it was originally intended as a musical and this shows.

Often things are played for comedy, but most of the jokes didn't make me laugh. Having the Lehman Brothers portrayed by two people in a single costume resembled pantomime too much for my liking. Yet at times, it was clearly intended to be deadly serious, the last twenty minutes or so especially. The problem is, by that point its credibility had fallen like Enron's stock price.

It wasn't unremittingly awful, though, far from it. The play is extremely watchable and there are many fine performances. Samuel West's Jeffrey Skilling and Tim Pigott-Smith's Ken Lay (the firm's two top executives) stand out among a strong cast. Yes, some accents occasionally slip, but overwhelmingly the standard is high.

The production design is pretty solid too. The vertical tube lights that fly up and down don't add much work, and sometimes get in the way, but the back screen onto which lots of things are projected, especially stock prices, and the ticker updating you on the company's fortunes are excellent. Similarly Lay's office, high above and looking down on the stage, is effective.

In the end, though, if there's one lesson to take from that gold standard of drama, The West Wing, it's that a bunch of people doing nothing more than talking about, on paper, exceptionally dull things, can make for astonishingly compelling viewing. I'd love to see someone try and tackle Enron in the same way.

I was, however, very much in the minority. Probably a minority of one. Everyone else seemed to have absolutely adored it.

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