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Enron

by on 25 September 2019

Show me the figures

Enron

by Lucy Prebble

Putney Theatre Company, Putney Arts Theatre, until 28 September

Review by Matthew Grierson

‘There’s a dignity in giving people things they can’t touch,’ is one of the observations that sustained Enron, and which sustains Enron in that so much of the play and the corporate scandal on which it is based is about selling us what is immaterial. As these things include both the energy being sold by the firm and the energy on which this play sells itself, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that both have their outages, with a subsequent effect on their respective reputations – perception being another of those qualities on which the business model is said to rely.

To redeem the promise of making something as abstract as the operation of markets visible before our eyes, the show therefore depends on its episodes of financial theatre. A large ensemble takes on the roles of employees, investors and public, and from their number will step an occasional individual to serve as newsreader and fill us in on key developments. Although some of these are entertainingly snappy, the diction is not always as clear as it really ought to be, with the American accents of varying quality, while the shift between chorus and speaker is often too pacey to help us pick up what is going on.

Enron 1

Most successful of these episodes is the metamorphosis of three of the swings into velociraptors at the end of the first act, with the simple addition of some effective cardboard masks and appropriate movement. The dinosaurs make material a metaphor openly embezzled by CFO Andy Fastow (Michael Maitland-Jones) from Jurassic Park and give stage presence to the shadow company he’s established to eat up the corporation’s losses, an objective correlative for his reptilian behaviour.

Maitland-Jones handles each aspect of Fastow’s personality well, from aspirant accountant to book-cooker to carnivore-keeper, especially as I understand he was drafted into the role at short notice. But, again, the transition between each could do with more work. I can buy him wanting to get on to the boss’s good side, but when it comes to the crucial shift from eager employee to criminal accomplice, well, I’m out.

Enron 3

Fastow’s character arc is less Faustian than Mephistophelean, for it is Enron chief Jeff Skilling who is effectively the tragic figure tempted from being your regular ruthless businessman into actual suspect practice. It’s hard to see why Lucas Pozzey’s Skilling should stand out at first: although he is built up in the dialogue before he gives his opening speech, this is delivered hesitantly from a set of steps stage left, and not all that well lit. Neither is it clear why the mark-to-market model that Skilling espouses distinguishes Enron, because if it’s as obvious as he makes it out to be won’t other companies be practising it as well?

The company’s USP continues to remain unclear for much of the rest of the first act, despite entertaining sequences along the way. A troupe of traders in bright, baggy jackets exchange braggadocio accounts of their activity amid a string of ‘buys’, ‘sells’, and ‘f***s’ as they hot-shoe shuffle around the stage and chalk prices on the floor. If you can overcome the cognitive dissonance of watching a largely female ensemble spout this testosterone-fuelled banter, it’s quite a spectacle – but given the traders are behaving just as we would expect them to behave, the scene obfuscates the mechanics of the market as much as it tells their story. While Enron was certainly in the business of pulling the wool over our eyes, dancing around the numbers here does nothing to illuminate this.

I found it worrisome, then, that the play began to sell itself to me at the precise point that Fastow is shilling his scheme to Skilling, miming the boxes within boxes on which the raptor-riddled shadow company depends. At this point, engagement with the narrative noticeably picks up, and we can see the tragic trajectory on which Skilling’s willingness to buy in to Fastow’s innovation sets them.

Pozzey’s performance, which has been gaining strength as the firm does, comes into its own here, adding light and dark to his characterisation of the self-styled captain of industry. A pair of contrasting scenes with his daughter capture his downfall perfectly. In the first, he helps her with her arithmetic by counting out actual dollars, but in the second he is left staring into the middle distance as though looking for the missing money, unable to answer her repeated question of ‘Why?’

Enron 2

His fortunes are mirrored by those of Claudia Roe, who starts out awaiting her anointment as Enron’s boss from money man Ken Lay before Skilling talks himself into the job instead. Kendal Barrett gives a sympathetic portrayal of Roe, a woman as skilled as Skilling against whom we can measure his rise and fall, and her parting words to him show how much better her business nous is than his. Michael Rossi’s Lay, meanwhile, is as ethereal as Enron’s money: offstage, he is heard only in phone calls that echo around the auditorium, God with a Texan drawl.

As Enron overreaches itself, we see its effects on both Fastow and Skilling, the former haggardly trying to keep his raptors in check and the latter nervily having his office swept for bugs. It is not only the law closing in, however, but reality. We’ve already had nods to the Lehman Brothers, given amusing form as a kind of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, and there’s a surprisingly affecting rendering of 9/11 that ties together a metaphor about investment and flying. But it’s the jokey references to W that ask us to pay attention, as they gradually build into a critical moment for the plot.

Speaking of plot, throughout Enron a graphline is gradually being chalked downstage by the cast to chart the company’s fortunes, but it’s not clear how this should be understood. From the audience’s point of view, this would have to be read left to right to make sense of the stock price, while from the stage it would look to close on the up rather than the fall. With its highs and lows and a lack of certainty about where things are going,  this might be the best metaphor of all for PTC’s production.

Matthew Grierson
September 2019

Photography courtesy of Putney Theatre Company

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