Financial crisis seems to bring out the best in British theatre. Just ask the director currently heading a revolution in intellectual showmanshipby Michael Coveney / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
Enron Royal Court Theatre, 17th September-7th November, Tel: 020 7565 5000
Also on the theatre: Mary Fitzgerald’s web exclusive article on the Edinburgh festivals
This is turning out to be one of best years in London theatre for ages. Significant dramas about climate change, racism and political disaffection are hitting the stage with almost unseemly regularity. Suddenly, at a time of political anxiety and economic recession, the theatre has renewed its ancient function as a sounding board in society.
The most notable success of all is Enron, a thrilling new play about the collapse of America’s seventh largest corporation in 2001. Combining the talents of Britain’s hottest new stage director, Rupert Goold, with a long overdue return to large-scale epic adventures in the Jacobean and Brechtian styles, Enron proves that there’s no business like big business in show business.
“It’s an exciting time,” says the 38-year-old Goold, who runs Headlong, the touring outfit that developed Enron at the Chichester Festival Theatre (where it was seen in July and August) and the Royal Court in London (where it opens this September). “People want to see their lives coming back at them. We wanted to do something complex and contemporary, and also something of high theatrical voltage, to catch this current mood.” Twenty-eight-year-old playwright Lucy Prebble, whose father ran a multinational software company and whose siblings both work for big consultancy firms, first pitched Enron as a musical but, says Goold, “with all of her lyrics the show would have lasted for ever, so we never got the music written.”
As it is the show runs for almost three hours, but it passes in a whirl of acidly satirical scenes, imbued with the giddy physical excitement of the deals and bluffs. The traders sit at illuminated desks like regimented figures in a dance piece; the stage is hung with celestial neon-lit pipes; the banking Lehman Brothers are portrayed as a comic double act crammed into one large pinstriped suit; Arthur Andersen, the doomed accountancy firm, is a mute ventriloquist’s dummy. Later on, three blind mice stalk a stage populated by large-masked vultures.
This expressionist approach is totally different from the kind of puritan aesthetic that governs most political theatre. We have had countless courtroom dramas and “verbatim” plays at the Tricycle in Kilburn—on subjects as diverse as the Nuremberg rallies, the internment camp at Guantánamo Bay, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as elegant political diagnoses by our leading contemporary playwright, David Hare. But Enron does something else. It restores a sense of buzz and excitement to our theatre that goes beyond the confines of the subsidised arena where Hare’s plays are presented (admittedly to an engaged and appreciative audience). A leading British banker, now retired, who saw the play in Chichester, told me that Enron was absolutely accurate in terms of the crazy energy and tunnel vision people had at that time.
More importantly, he said, while our own British banking institutions used to be able to stand back and look at things dispassionately, even morally, they have been increasingly moving to the American model so horrifically presented in Enron. And what Enron does is personalise the tragedy of capitalism in the character of Jeffrey Skilling, formerly the chief executive of Enron—and now serving a long prison sentence. The ruthless Skilling, played by Samuel West as a geek with personality problems who transforms himself into a sharp-suited untouchable, is a genuine tragic anti-hero: a Macbeth of market manipulation in criminal la-la-land as he brings California to its knees with power cuts in order to sell on electricity at massively inflated prices.
This kind of character creation, a modern Shakespearean monster, is rare in the theatre these days. But, significantly, it’s the second such this year: already at the Royal Court we’ve seen Mark Rylance play a Falstaffian naysayer and drug-pusher in Jez Butterworth’s Wiltshire pastoral, Jerusalem, in which the rural alternative life of myths and legends fights back against creeping urbanisation. Like Enron, it’s a play for today with knobs on.
Both these new plays take British drama out of the fringe closet and into the mainstream. Goold, who has no particular axe to grind about anything—except making his work both as popular and radical as he possibly can—was worried for a time that Skilling might run away from him and become a right-wing monster. Surely, I put it to him, that would not have mattered much: there’s not a lot to like about any of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, is there? “Ah yes, but you see you have to love them a little, even if you don’t like them,” he replies, “and I didn’t want Skilling to become someone you couldn’t love just a bit.”
It’s likely that a more straightforward sense of outrage will inform David Hare’s new play at the National Theatre, The Power of Yes, in September. Here, according to the subtitle, “a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis.” To this end, Hare has talked to bankers and traders, as well as victims and politicians. Goold has talked to no one very much—Lucy Prebble did all the research—but he does have a younger brother in the money business. As he explains, “My brother Toby was a banker with Citigroup until he was fired at Christmas and was unemployed for three or four months. Now he and his team have found new positions with Bank of New York Mellon in their London offices. But I’m more interested, really, in unleashing the theatre-ness of this subject, and I wanted to make sure that it was going to be understood by a non-specialist audience.”
Enron’s collapse has already been the subject of a documentary film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), based on the bestselling book by two Fortune magazine reporters, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. But Prebble and Gould go beyond mere documentation, not only in the figure of Skilling, but also in the secondary theatrical monsters of the cigar-chomping, golf-loving Enron owner Ken Lay (Tim Pigott-Smith), who died of a heart attack while awaiting sentence; and the chief financial officer Andy Fastow (Tom Goodman-Hill), the amoral, satanic accomplice who led Skilling to the mountaintop and showed him the promised land.
Goold’s recent productions include a brilliant revival of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart, set in a white-tiled kitchen where blood gushes out of the taps and victims are dispatched in a clanking metal lift; and an acclaimed re-imagining of Pirandello’s 1921 landmark tragedy of illusion and reality, Six Characters in Search of an Author. This dynamic compression of plays ancient and modern into their metaphorical elements is a process characteristic of his work for some years now. In 2002, he staged Milton’s Paradise Lost—the greatest English theatrical poem outside of Shakespeare—at the Northampton Theatre Royal. In 2006, he and his constant dramaturge Ben Power put on a rewriting of Marlowe’s Faustus, completely modernising the setting into an art gallery where the exhibits were the work of the Chapman Brothers. There’s no shyness about blazing away at the big subjects in Goold’s work, and he has a sort of genius at making unruly, difficult projects appeal to a mainstream ticket-buying audience: he’s an intellectual showman.
The commitment of Goold’s Headlong to the Enron project also echoes Caryl Churchill’s 1987 play Serious Money: an exciting theatrical response to the “big bang” financial reforms of the 1980s that is in many ways Enron’s model. Complete with songs by Ian Dury, Serious Money anatomised in good old leftie fashion the Tory years of concupiscence and pillage among the corporate raiders. Churchill prefaced her play with a reference to Thomas Shadwell’s The Volunteers: or The Stockjobbers (1693), thus making a link with the Restoration comedies that followed the Jacobean model. In the Shadwell extract, there was a premonitory flash of a nation on the rampage for shares in public enterprises and the leisure markets—not hotels and fashion, but performing monkeys and rope acts.
In Serious Money, every single character is marked by greed and corruption, from the chairman of Albion Products to the Peruvian businesswoman who sheds her holdings in the mines when the price of copper plummets, abandoning the workforce to their fate. There’s an unexplained suicide and a landslide election victory for the Conservatives—“five more glorious years”—as the loadsamoney bandwagon rolls inexorably onwards. The context of Enron is obviously very different, and Prebble introduces not only news reporters and lawyers, but also victims at ground level and even Skilling’s little daughter, who releases a refrain of “Why?” into the ether that he is tortuously unable to deal with.
There’s a sense of apocalyptic finality and exhaustion about Enron, too. Churchill’s play operated in a mood of almost helpless but theatrically vibrant opposition. Enron, on the other hand, represents a majority feeling about what happened. “A lot of the play happens inside a bubble that burst,” says Goold, “but there are always more bubbles. Part of me is clear that it will happen again. Andy Fastow, somebody said to me the other day, will probably be out of prison in time to attend the first night at the Royal Court!”
The play is already being talked of in terms of awards, and producers in New York are going crazy to claim a piece of the action. “One great irony,” says Goold, “is that theatre producers in London to whom we showed the play early on said they simply couldn’t risk getting involved. The other great irony is that now we have a very successful play about hubris, a hit show born out of disaster, just like Mel Brooks with The Producers.”