Enron, Noel Coward Theatre, London
Thursday 28 January 2010
For a reviewer, there's always the temptation, when you haven't seen the premiere of some big hit, to dissent from the critical consensus when the successful show transfers, trailing clouds of glory, to the West End. This practice can win you Brownie points for independence of mind; it can also, by that token, be deeply disingenuous.
But if I don't sincerely mean what I am about to say in relation to Enron, one of the allegedly landmark moments in 21st-century drama, then it's at a level inaccessible to introspection. I can absolutely see why Lucy Prebble's play and Rupert Goold's production received ecstatic reviews when it opened last summer in Chichester. One of the impulses behind these notices must have been the sheer relief that I, too, would have experienced, had illness not prevented me from seeing the piece. As it traces the collapse of the outrageous corporate con trick pulled by the Enron energy company, both the script and the staging make vividly intelligible such fiendishly twisted concepts as mark-to-market. It is also the kind of production that, with its big visual ideas, is easy to write about. No one ever went down in a reviewer's star-rating for being both intellectual tricky and brashly obvious.
I read the text of Enron in preparation for seeing David Hare's verbatim piece on the global financial meltdown, The Power of Yes. I admired Prebble's piercing and principled clarity. But watching the production for the first time now, it struck me as, well, a just a tad sophomoric, or at least what a bright, ambitious undergraduate might concoct if s/he had a healthy budget. Take the men in business suits with raptor heads who are supposed to symbolise the ravenous shadow companies. These figures should look morally repulsive; instead, they look shallowly risible. Each of them resembles some absentee father banker who, while trying to give his kid some rare quality time, has got his head stuck in some dinosaur Disneyland plastic mask. Collectively, they could be a support group for such men.
This brings me to the undernourishment of the relationships in the piece. Samuel West brings some masterly moral shading to Faustian über-geek, Jeffrey Skilling. But the scenes with his little daughter, designed to show him as guilty and emotionally inadequate, are themselves guilty of emotional inadequacy in both the writing and the staging. So much of the show seems vestigial of an earlier plan to make it a musical. I've heard the defence that the gesticulating song-and-dance traders and the light-sabre-wielding Jedi are supposed to make one cringe slightly. Mmm. This seems to me close to that other kind of defence: "It's about boredom; it has a right to be boring", which is vacuous in its circularity. While I would not go as far as to say that this is a soulless take on a soulless world, I will say that alternative values are not feelingly enough implied and that if anyone fancies writing the masterpiece of financial meltdown, the field is still wide open.
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