Lucy Prebble’s play follows the rise and fall of the energy trading giant Enron. Jeffery Skilling, your least favourite PPE boy who loves telling you how smart he is through the medium of debate, transforms the old gas and oil company into a firm that trades in energy, then bandwidth – and maybe even weather.
We first meet Skilling at a staff party (or a “celebration of ignorance”), in which the company is drinking to moving the financial model of mark-to-market, a model which allows for the company to increase their stock price before or, in this case without, increasing their profits. With him is Andy Fastow, another Oxford type, this time the nerdy one who still likes you to know he’s intelligent but flexes slightly less.
As the play persists, the work that the two men are doing seems to become increasingly removed from the world around them. Skilling takes the company from selling energy to the “glistening, clean industry” of trading. With their company’s stocks mainly being reliant on projections when the projects don’t pay off, Enron is left verging on bankruptcy, and so Fastow detaches himself further from reality, creating shadow companies to hide the debt, embodied as dinosaurs.
The company is distancing itself from reality, but the impact it is having on real life is only getting greater. We hear of deaths and the ruining of lives in the name of Skilling’s ego, or the company’s share price, all juxtaposed with crude jokes and a classic neo-liberal excuse that the company cannot be wrong, its either the fault of overregulation or the market.
The two other main players in the Enron game are Ken Lay, Enron’s chairman, and Claudia Row, Skilling’s failed rival and a character representing an amalgamation of high up company staff. Lay is an honest grandfather-like figure who takes a step back when he notices business is getting dodgy and refuses to hear of anything wrong, claiming, “Once you bury a dead dog, you don’t dig it up to smell it”. Row is an old-schooler with a distaste for Skilling’s ideas who generally fails to use her femininity to her advantage in this masculine company, although we are led to suspect that she may have been more successful before Skilling’s arrival.
What really hits home about the production is this: while you’re watching it, you’re sat near to, or maybe even are, the next Jeffery Skilling. He tells us that the smart people like him work in the private sector, and those who dossed about become politicians. I urge everyone to make their PPE friends watch it as a morality check.
Enron tells this corporate story through extravagant staging. Dressed like a park ranger with a tie around his head, Andy Fastow invites us into his lair-like office which slowly becomes filled with green lighting, smoke, and the aforementioned dinosaurs. We watch this childlike character treating hiding debt and finding loopholes as an all-consuming game. This game continues ‘upstairs’: throwing punches, losing money and cracking jokes, the traders almost can’t stop moving in the testosterone fuelled trading floor; each excited line delivered to us after a run downstage. The production amazes throughout with its rather ‘dotcom-bubble’ electronic backdrop projecting political events, graphs and share prices.
This staging was absolutely captivating: I found I couldn’t take my eyes away for the entire performance. Every scene change is slick, with those moving furniture doing so – in suits – in a fast and ordered fashion. Every detail of the play is considered, from establishing the scene and moving the plot through a long period of time quickly (and without discontinuity), to directing the audience’s attention to the speaker.
The performance from all the cast is similarly incredible; their comedic timing is on point, and I’d be surprised if any of them could have done anything more with their lines. There were laughs from the audience throughout, driven both by comic lines and also by the drama of the scene. While watching, I was even drawn to believe the age of the characters through their convincing acting styles and costumes.
We are even treated to further absurdity with a beautifully harmonised barbershop-esque performance, as well as the throwing of shredded documents over Lay. This surreal quality keeps us at a safe distance from identifying with the would-be-tragic-hero, Jeffery Skilling. Although he and Enron fall, the people who fall with it fall more; and rather than the ending being cathartic, I was left rather more with a desire for social justice, or at least a desire to throw two fingers up to capitalism and move to Norway and raise some chickens.
With absolutely no lawful wrongdoing or vested interest, I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch this play.