Thursday, 15 October 2009


12/10/09, Royal Court

We thought it was absolutely cracking, stuffed full of invention and first-rate performances. Directed by Rupert Goold: compare his Turandot which was also full of ideas and invention, but on that occasion they were often baffling or at odds with the music and the direction of the drama. Not here.

There were songs, dance routines, fantastic lighting, "raptors" in the basement (the fancy accounting devices and off balance sheet vehicles designed to cook the Enron books, which eventually came back to devour their creators), swift sketches of members of Congress, analysts, bankers and others blinded to Enron's failures by stupidity, greed, arrogance or a desire not to seem out of step with the prevailing consensus... oh, and Lehman Brothers sharing a single overcoat.

Sam West played Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO, developing from backroom geek to master of the universe to desperation and later paranoia as it all comes crashing down. Towards the end his lawyer tells him the principal accusation against Enron is that it "took advantage" of others (including the state of California, whose power supplies it deliberately disrupted to drive up the price). "Taking an advantage is what we do in business," Skilling retorts. Except of course that it isn't: making an honest profit by providing goods or services is one thing; unfairly exploiting legal loopholes and other people's gullibility while producing dishonest accounts is quite another.

I suspect the principal female character was an invention, there to contrast the Skilling approach to business with something more traditional (as well as to create a major role for a woman... except that she disappears two-thirds of the way through, when she's fired). She wants to build power stations in India, a market she thinks has huge potential, and she is of course right. But building power stations takes years, requires huge amounts of capital and provokes strikes and demonstrations and political problems; Skilling's approach to business makes everyone at Enron instantly rich overnight.

The parallels with the banking bubble are eerie. This is a company which started as a conventional business (oil and power generation) and grew massively and unsustainably by turning itself into a trading entity, many of whose products were incomprehensible to anyone but insiders. This was a play about the way businesses can lose touch with the underlying realities as clever people think up ever cleverer wheezes to make money. In the end Enron was little more than a Ponzi fraud.

Tim Piggott-Smith played the chairman, Ken Lay, as a good ole Texan boy. But A, who is American, said the accents for the most part were excruciating.

Lucy Prebble, who wrote it, is only 26: a fact which has inevitably excited much remark. We await her next with huge anticipation.

Penelope went to see it a few days later. I agree with almost everything she says.

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