How fitting that the West End transfer of Lucy Prebble’s much-lauded Enron, a play about the corruption and collapse of corporate finance, should open on the very day that the UK officially emerged from a recession caused by those very factors.
The great Samuel West leads the same cast as that which first appeared at the Chichester Minerva Theatre in July last year, then at the Royal Court in the autumn, and the company crackle with energy and wit now just as they did in each of the previous incarnations of the show.
Anthony Ward’s set looks fantastic on the larger stage of the Noel Coward Theatre after the more confined environment of the Court and Rupert Goold’s thrilling staging, complete with light sabre choreography, stalking raptors and line-dancing traders is a theatrical feast. This transfer is just what Prebble’s astoundingly mature play deserves.
- Jo Caird
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from September 2009, and this production's run at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
The exciting thing about Lucy Prebble’s Enron is its revelation that there is no business like big business, and a second viewing confirms the gutsiness and vitality of her second major play, the best look at mayhem in the markets since Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money over twenty years ago.
Although recent television documentaries on the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in New York have throbbed with a quiet, chilling sense of meltdown and devastation, Rupert Goold’s endlessly inventive production moves the astonishing, hubristic creation of a shadow capitalism built on the “real” capitalism into the realms of dance and metaphor.
And at its centre is the tragic figure of the Enron president, Jeffrey Skilling, whom Samuel West brilliantly presents as a geeky, rather childish champion of the mark-to-market philosophy turning first into a predatory shark of the trading floor and then an anguished victim of his own obsessive empire-building, haunted by an accusatory refrain from his little daughter.
With its endless red ticker tape showing the share prices, the gleaming, mirage-like photographic imagery of the skyscrapers melding into the symbolic terrorist targets of eight years ago, shortly after the Enron collapse, and the neon strip lighting that becomes hand-held weaponry, Anthony Ward’s design does look a little cramped on the Court stage.
In the open airiness of the Minerva in Chichester there was a greater sense of a constellation of capitalism, and the use of boxes as rostra for the traders was more effective in a floor-level arena. But visual expression is so endemic to this show’s meaning, it’s hard to see how Goold and his team could have turned the handicap of the Court’s compactness to advantage.
Maybe they will sort this out when, after this sold-out run, Enron transfers to the Noel Coward in the New Year. The performances of Tim Pigott-Smith as the Enron owner Ken Lay and Amanda Drew as Skilling’s office lover and chief rival Claudia Roe (a fictional character) are as strong as ever.
The show is epic, noisy, colourful and cartoonish – flying directly in the face of the predominantly puritanical Royal Court aesthetic – but it’s so heatedly on the button of what happened in all of our lives, you won’t want to miss it. And watch out for Tom Goodman-Hill’s fresh-faced financial controller, Andy Fastow, a wonderful study in cunning survival and the satanic strategy skills that did for Skilling and his castle in the night sky.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from July 2009, and this production's premiere at the Chichester Minerva Theatre.
The story of Enron, the energy company that became, at the time, America's biggest bankruptcy, sounds so fantastic that it could have been fashioned from the pen of a particularly imaginative writer. The fact that much of this tale is true, heightens the excitement of this thrilling Headlong production, the highlight of what has been a strong Chichester season.
Lucy Prebble's morality tale is the perfect vehicle for Rupert Goold and his love of video, back projections, harsh lighting and sound effects. Goold uses every technique at his disposal to bring the the story to life – particularly in an innovative routine based on light sabres. Anthony Ward’s set is a brilliant backdrop to the events that rocked America.
At the heart of Prebble's tale is a superb performance by Samuel West as Jeffrey Skilling, the architect of the fraud. First glimpsed as a plump, gauche but ambitious executive, we see him gradually take control of Enron and enact his own fantasy of selling everything, including the weather. West captures every twitch of a man wholly driven by the need to make money, not so much for its own sake but by the need to create something innovative. Driven eventually into mental disintegration, West gives us a vision of a man driven by his obsession with Enron stock price, because, as he tells his daughter, that’s how he knows how much he’s worth.
The other leads give strong performances too. Tom Goodman-Hill is the socially inept but financially brilliant Andy Fastow, the guy who devised the scheme that brought Enron down, while Tim Pigott-Smith as Enron chairman Kenneth Lay smiles toothily and pockets the cash.
Prebble has invented a character, Claudia Roe, as the antithesis of Skilling and his machinations. Her vision of a more conventional future, based on actually manufacturing something, is rejected by Lay and after that she is used as a moral counterpoint to Skilling's schemes. I found this the least convincing part of the play, despite Amanda Drew's spiky portrayal of the snubbed Roe. It’s too neat a dramatic device; a real-life exec would have left or pocketed the cash and asked no questions.
It is however, not a documentary. Prebble leaves out several major players and her portrayal of the real-life characters is too far-fetched. In particular, Lay was an executive who had been in business for years, his life spent mired in controversy (including a previous financial scandal at Enron) - he was far from the James Stewart-like innocent of Pigott-Smith’s portrayal.
These are small quibbles: this is an outstanding production of a thought-provoking and, above all, entertaining play. Headlong is bringing Enron to the Royal Court later this year, if you miss it in Chichester, catch it there - this is a theatrical treat.