It’s 2001. A Texas-based company worth more than a hundred billion dollars has declared bankruptcy. This move will unveil the corporation’s systemic accounting fraud and corruption, and will lead to the imprisonment of multiple employees. ‘Enron’, this high-flying company, hailed for being forward-thinking at the turn of the twentieth century, would fall.
Fast-forward to early 2019 and the tale of Enron’s unravelling is being brought to the Oxford Playhouse in a vibrant and slick new production by Theatre Goose and Sour Peach Productions. The twelve-strong ensemble cast engage in a performance by which the audience bear witness to an overwhelming barrage of multiple connections and networks, painting a portrait of the corporate world with all of its flaws.
Lucy Prebble’s play, Enron, premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2009 to glowing reviews when the playwright was only twenty-eight. Prebble’s play traces the rise and fall of Enron frontrunner and eventual CEO Jeffrey Skilling (Jamie Murphy) in a narrative not dissimilar from a Classical or Shakespearean tragedy.
The succession of scenes I watched in the preview for Enron began at the play’s start. Director Emma Howlett creates the corporate world through ensemble work. One minute actors bunch together, chatting viciously in crowds, the next they are darting across to the other side of the room to find the next person. Such imagery of groups has the effect of making a lone actor on stage appear even more prominent – reminding the audience that, amongst the mass, there remain individuals with individual agency.
Such an individual begins the play: ensemble member Lee Simmonds performs a monologue, declaring that he is a “lawyer” who is “one of the few who makes money in times like these.” He explains to the audience how Enron’s story will be told: “you should you know it could never be exactly what happened. But we’re going to put it together and sell it to you as truth.” Their task of story-telling is overt, and Simmonds’ monologue gets the ball rolling with a captivating start.
We are introduced to the leading characters at a party in the offices of Enron – Howlett optimises the entirety of the stage to focus our attention on certain figures. Individuals dart from the background into the foreground, making their presence known both to their colleagues and to the audience. It is at this point we are acquainted with our leading man: Jeffrey Skilling. Jamie Murphy brings to the role a charm and restlessness that marks him as the golden boy one should look out for. We are also introduced to Andy Fastow (Alex Rugman), Skilling’s partner and Enron’s eventual CFO. Rugman’s awkward and eager-to impress Fastow excellently contrasts the polished and perfect corporate world he inhabits.
Skilling and Fastow are newer elements in the a much older equation, fronted by Enron founder Ken Lay (Jonny Wiles) and woman of the hour Claudia Roe (Abby McCann). Howlett informs me later that all of these main characters are portraits of the real people involved in, and some of them prosecuted for, the Enron scandal – except Claudia Roe. Through the character of Claudia Roe, Howlett continues, Prebble creates a “paradigm of what it means to be female” in the macho, hyper-masculine world of the Enron Corporation. McCann’s Roe is a force to be reckoned with – Skilling recognizes her from the pages of Vogue that she reminds him was “cropped from a profile in Forbes.”
A hotbed of competition and hunger, Enron also becomes a hotbed of sex. Soon enough, Skilling and McCann are in bed together. But just as Roe zips her skirt up, they are back to talking numbers: “I’ve been thinking mark-to-market,” Roe declares. A moment of possible emotional connection is conflated with matters of business – Skilling blurts out that he is leaving his wife, whilst simultaneously Roe declares that she might be getting a promotion. It becomes clear that these characters have real difficulty occupying any sense of self distinct from the one they occupy at work.
Together, Murphy and McCann have a chemistry that is electric, proving particularly intense in a later scene with Enron boss Ken Lay as they fight over the possibility of a promotion: each are sat at either end of a very long table, with Wiles as Lay sat in between them at the middle. Lay’s choice is obvious: go with the charismatic Skilling and change the future of Enron forever, or with Roe, her Texan drawl representative of the company’s roots in southern tradition. Skilling makes his last bid for power, selling Lay his modern outlook on the future of the company and its potential investment opportunities: “There’s a dignity to giving people something they can’t touch.”
This question of tangibility is one I am left thinking about long after the scenes are over. Despite what Skilling declares in the line above, what Prebble’s play makes possible is in fact tangibility: we, the audience, are able to see that at the root of financial failure is human decision-making. I myself find the world of finance completely alien to me at the best of times, but what Enron does is frame it in terms that we can all understand, and in fact, relate to.
I very much look forward to seeing the cast and crew in full force next week at the Oxford Playhouse.