Enron at Noël Coward Theatre

This post was originally written on 5th March, 2010.

Last week, we went to see the West End transfer of Enron. The play, which was written by the promising young playwright Lucy Prebble and directed by the current it-boy of London theatre Rupert Goold, was one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of 2009. Considering the hype and the fact that both its two previous runs sold out, we were very excited to see the play, and especially timed it to fall on Jeff’s birthday.
As the name suggests, the play recounts the events surrounding the rise and eventual collapse of Enron. The potentially difficult financial details of the work are clearly presented in Prebble’s script. For example, one scene shows the shell game that Enron was playing humorously and succinctly with a series of boxes. Another scene explains the nature of markets using the following metaphor: suppose you are betting on the most beautiful woman in a room, the smart people don’t actually bet on who they think is the most beautiful. Instead, they put their money on who they think everyone else thinks is the most beautiful. Of course, the even smarter people bet on who they think those people will bet on, and so on, until it is irrelevant who the most beautiful woman actually is.
Enron, however, is not a straight ahead documentary (this has been done very well by the film Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) and it contains a number of surreal elements. The company that Enron creates to hide its debt is portrayed as a pack of raptors who devour debt; the dinosaurs representing the danger and seductiveness of the company’s lies. In such scenes, there is a potential for the play to slip too far into a kind of silly fantasy, but generally Goold’s direction keeps the piece rooted. Other places, his striking directorial style is on display. (We saw some examples of his attention-getting work in Six Characters in Search of an Author (highly recommended), especially a scene in which all the characters break into an operatic expression of emotions and another in which a girl drowns in a giant fish tank.) In Enron, the scene in which stock prices are projected onto stylised traders is magnificent. Almost as good is the use of dancing Jedis complete with light sabers to depict traders’ manipulation of California’s energy grid. However, such elements become excessive and tiresome after a while, especially the numerous dance sequences which we feel detract from the drive of the narrative. These may have been holdovers from the play’s original conception as a musical.
Indeed, despite its novelty and flair, Enron at times feels surprisingly slow and even a little dull. It is unclear whether this was the result of the topic or of Prebble’s failure to capture the implicit drama of the characters and the situation. (Or maybe it was just an off night.) I wonder if much of the hype had to do with the play’s timely appearance during the height of the credit crunch. I am not convinced that it has the immediacy today that it must have had when it was first released.
Still, I was particularly impressed by the performances of the two male leads: Samuel West as Jeffrey Skilling and Tim Piggot-Smith as Ken Lay. West’s portrayal of Skilling’s transformation from an uncomfortable accountant to an arrogant leader is especially impressive. He also manages to capture Skilling’s vulnerability and self-doubt in several key scenes. I am not quite willing to give Enron‘s stock a must-buy recommendation, but it is an interesting and often engaging work which provides an important warning about greed and the excesses of capitalism.
UPDATED on Thursday 6th May 2010: Guardian ran an article about the disastrous performance of the play in Broadway.

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