Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Enron at the Noel Coward Theatre

Bit late to the table with this one, but still...

Lucy Prebble’s ambitious and assured play about the spectacular collapse of the energy company Enron, the biggest bankruptcy in American history, comes to the West End by way of the Royal Court and Chichester, trailing a comet tail of glittering reviews in its wake.

A Broadway transfer is now also imminent. Going to see this show knowing all this, it's inevitable that one’s expectations will be high – given all that’s been said and written, how could they not be? Fortunately the production is, in its own, sometimes overwhelming way, quite dazzling. Rupert Goold directs with a characteristic level of visual invention and exuberance though he sometimes trowels on the different theatrical techniques.

There are song and dance numbers, video projections, puppetry and even a choreographed sequence with light sabres, yet his approach to the material, though it can feel excessive, also feels apt. The production demands your attention. It’s glossy and unstoppable, which seems entirely fitting.

Beneath all Goold’s glitter, Prebble’s play is quite conventional in terms of structure. She depicts in a linear and comparatively straightforward way Enron’s path to implosion as the company is steered into ever more risky waters by its ambitious CEO Jeffrey Skilling (Samuel West) and by the fawning but fiscally creative Andy Fastow (Tom Goodman-Hill). For a while things seem fine. The share price keeps climbing and Skilling keeps pushing the company onwards, expanding into new markets – but the money simply isn’t there. Having purposefully moved Enron away from dealing in the “things you can hold” into more theoretical trading territory, Skilling’s profits are virtual, his debts are mounting. When Fastow suggests a legal loophole that might allow them to camouflage this, at least until things improve, Skilling is intrigued. Neither of them believe they can fail (Skilling proudly describes himself not just as "smart" but as "fucking smart"); it simply doesn’t occur to them that things might go wrong.

Prebble is careful not to make Skilling into a one-dimensional villain. Though never exactly sympathetic, she does at least make him human, a thing she achieves primarily via scenes showing his slightly baffled interactions with his young daughter (they count dollar bills together). At the same time she does not shy away from showing how his hubris devastated lives; the collapse of the company stripped many employees of their life savings and left them with nothing.

West’s superb performance gives the production its pulse. In his hands Skilling is an enigmatic and intriguing figure, highly intelligent, ruthless and manipulative when needs be, and utterly convinced of his own brilliance, but also undoubtedly passionate about what he does. It’s clear that greed is only one of many motivating factors; his is a familiar dramatic trajectory, the archetypal rise and fall – only when he falls he takes a whole heap of people with him. Physically, West transforms himself repeatedly as the play progresses. From a portly outsider with unfortunate hair at the start he morphs into the epitome of the slick executive and then, as the full reality of the situation comes to light, he subtly conveys Skilling’s unravelling.

As company chairman Ken Lay, Tim Pigott-Smith is more of a conventional boo-hiss figure with a reptilian steeliness concealed beneath his friendly gee-shucks exterior. Goodman-Hill is also impressive as the smart but socially awkward and rather repellent Fastow.

Goold’s directorial approach can be playful and witty, but often when he’s drawn to a particular visual device, he can’t resist returning to it again and again. The first use of dinosaur-headed performers to represent the ‘raptors’ (the term used by Fastow to describe his debt guzzling scheme) is both striking and amusing, a deft way of making something quite complex more easily graspable, but their impact is diluted by Goold’s repeated use of them.

Some of the imagery feels forced and overdone. The use of three blind mice in the opening sequence lacks subtly and the paralleling of the panicked shredding of incriminating Enron paperwork with the raining debris of the World Trade Centre is simply crass and unnecessary.

Though the production is, in the main, a fascinating and exciting, if inevitably condensed, depiction of one of the defining events of the last decade, there are several moments where it's tempting to call out to the stage and say: "yes OK, point made, we get it already."

Reviewed for musicOMH

1 comment:

Thrifty Gal said...

Interesting review - agree with most of it. Be interested to see how you thought it compared with the Smartest Guys in the Room?