Enron: we had the experience but missed the meaning

Three blind mice! Stock tickers! Raptors! Light sabres! Filing cabinets! Sex on a table! LEDs! LOTS of LEDs! Large-scale corporate fraud!

Sorry, Lucy Prebble, metaphor isn’t enough.

Enron, I’m afraid, is one of those maddeningly frustrating plays that hover around a subject for two-and-a-half hours without ever quite landing on a point, or a point of view. It arrives in Manchester trailing spectacular reviews from Chichester and London (though not from Broadway, where it was a fast flop earlier this year), but, taken as a whole, it doesn’t live up to the hype.

The physical production (direction by Rupert Goold, sets by Anthony Ward, lighting by Mark Henderson, music, lyrics and sound design by Adam Cork, video and projections by Jon Driscoll, choreography by Scott Ambler – I list them all because they’re the real stars of the show), it has to be said, is absolutely dazzling. Using dialogue, music, movement, scenery, projections, masks and an endlessly inventive series of visual metaphors, Prebble and the rest of the creative team do a terrific job of rendering the impenetrable accounting practices that led to the catastrophic collapse of Enron in 2001 with startling clarity. Special purpose entities are portrayed as raptors, which have to be fed a constant supply of dollar bills to keep them happy. The deregulation of the Californian power market is presented as a choreographed light sabre battle. A rising and falling grid of tubular lights is used to spectacular effect, ultimately serving as a cage that imprisons the play’s chief protagonist, Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s former president. A succession of projected photographs and video keeps the play’s chronology absolutely clear. A huge projected LED stock ticker display shows the gradual climb and quick fall of the company’s share price.  Ambler’s choreography wittily comments on the body language financial traders use on the floor, and Cork’s score makes shrewd use of the vocabulary of musical theatre to convey the surging rhythms of the financial markets. It’s fast-paced, slick, clever, stylish, and never less than entertaining.

Unfortunately, though, it’s also never more than superficially entertaining. In among all of the theatrical tricks, Lucy Prebble somehow forgot to write a play. Enron offers a remarkably clear, all-singing all-dancing lecture in the intricacies of corporate fraud, but that’s more or less where it ends. There are, ostensibly, four protagonists – Skilling, Kenneth Lay, chief financial officer Andy Fastow and VP Claudia Roe (unlike the other three, a fictional composite) – and we see them do a lot of things. What we don’t get at any point in the play is any sense of what drives or motivates them, beyond a basic desire to keep Enron’s share price up and turn a profit by any means. We get the events, but almost no insight; the experience, but not the meaning. Even the colossal suffering inflicted on shareholders by the company’s spectacular collapse is glossed over – there’s a short scene in which two former employees confront Skilling at Lay’s funeral, but that’s more or less it. There’s an attempt, in a lengthy sequence late in Act Two, to give Enron’s collapse global significance by juxtaposing the corporation’s plummeting share price in the second half of 2001 with 9/11 imagery, including a projected still of the burning Twin Towers. This, unfortunately, is much the worst-written passage of the play; it’s never entirely clear what point Prebble might be trying to make, and the use of such potent visual imagery in such an unfocused scene merely cheapens the image and pulls the audience’s focus away from the stage.

The problem, basically, is one of tone. It’s never clear whether we’re watching a satire, a morality play, a contemporary tragedy, or a black comedy about the nature of hubris. We see four protagonists, plus an ensemble who all play multiple roles, which means that we see figures rather than characters, which means that the characterisations, even of those four protagonists, veer towards caricature. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Prebble’s writing matched or even approached the wit of the physical production, but it doesn’t. Her zingers aren’t, and exchanges which are clearly intended to be comic barely raise a titter. Conversely, the play’s fast-moving succession of short vignettes mean that we never get to spend any significant time with those four protagonists, with the result that we’ve barely any more understanding of what makes them tick at the end of the play than we had at the beginning. If we’re meant to be moved or even angered by these people, then they need more flesh. The result is a piece of writing that makes a complicated sequence of events commendably clear, but which never quite manages to hit any definite point of view – well, apart from “large-scale corporate fraud is bad, mmmkay?”, which we all knew going in.

This makes it sound like a disaster, and it’s not. It’s a very entertaining piece of theatre, and this touring iteration of the Royal Court/West End production is impeccably performed by a strong ensemble cast, led by Clive Francis as Ken Lay and Corey Johnson as Jeffrey Skilling. The show – and that’s what it is, a show – is never dull, never boring, and the flair of the physical presentation makes it a must-see for anyone who loves theatrical theatre – but once you’ve worked through the various visual wows, you won’t have a lot left to talk about on the train home. Enron, in the end, is an unintentionally perfect dramatic encapsulation of the company it’s named after: when you peel away the layers of artifice in the presentation, there’s nothing underneath.

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