Royal Court, London 5 / 5 stars
Reviewed by Michael Billington, for the Guardian, September 23, 2013.
Samuel West, Tim Pigott-Smith and Amanda Drew in Enron. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
After the high praise earned in Chichester, there was always the lurking fear the Enron bubble might burst on transfer. But, although it had more room to manoeuvre at the Minerva, Lucy Prebble’s play and Rupert Goold’s production are so strong that they survive the move. What they vividly offer is not a lecture on corporate madness but an ultra-theatrical demonstration of it at work.
The play shows how the Texan energy giant, Enron, moved from a model of the future to a bankrupt disaster with debts of $38bn. Prime mover is Jeffrey Skilling: a Marlovian over-reacher who boldly announces "we’re not just an energy company, we’re a powerhouse for ideas". His basic idea is to trade in energy as well as supply it. But, as his dreams expand to include video, internet and even the weather, the gap between stockmarket perception and reality grows ever greater. As profits fail to materialise, Skilling turns to his sidekick, Andy Fastow, to create shadow companies to conceal mounting debts. Once the market loses confidence, however, Skilling’s schemes are revealed for what they are: a fraudulent fantasy.
It could all be dry as dust. But the pulse and vigour of play and production stem from their ability to make complex financial ideas manifest. Everything is made visually apprehensible. Thus the complicity of market analysts in Enron’s over-evaluation is captured by turning them into a close-harmony troupe. The Lehman Brothers become Siamese twins locked into a single suit. Best of all is the scene where Fastow explains his system for funnelling Enron’s debts into shadow companies. Even financial innocents can follow this as Fastow shows boxes encasing ever smaller boxes lit by a flickering red light symbolising the basic investment. This is capitalism exposed as con-trick and illusion.
Goold’s immaculate staging, Anthony Ward’s design and Scott Ambler’s movement illustrate the whirling kaleidoscopic energy that is part of the dream. But Prebble also creates plausible people, and Samuel West is hugely impressive as the self-deluded Skilling. It is difficult to feel sympathy for such a man, whose deregulation policies did so much damage, but West reminds us of the global complicity in money worship. Amanda Drew as his rival, Tim Pigott-Smith as Enron’s avuncular founder, and Tom Goodman-Hill as the greed-driven Fastow, haunted by the scaly raptors which symbolise the shadow-companies, are also first-rate.
But the triumph of the evening is that it renders Enron’s rise and fall in exciting theatrical terms, and leaves us with the feeling that, as the bonus culture thrives while others lose their jobs, the lessons of this vast collapse have still to be learned.