First Night: Enron, Minerva Theatre, Chichester

A compelling tragedy of modern capitalism

Michael Coveney
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:37

After what's happened in the past few years, no-one should be surprised if our theatre comes up, at last, with a compelling tragedy of modern capitalism: the collapse of Enron, America's seventh largest corporation, going from $70m (£42.5m) of building plants and natural gas and electricity supplies to bankruptcy in just 24 days, is the signature story of the age.

The ridiculous explosion of wealth was based on trading without it, building an empire on shadows, with false figures and the lunatic excitement of the trading floor. This wonderful new show directed by Rupert Goold for Chichester, his own touring company Headlong and the Royal Court (where it lands in September) is an update of Caryl Churchill's Serious Money and the Michael Douglas movie Wall Street for the post- September 11 generation.

For the symbolic implosion of the twin towers followed soon after the collapse of Enron and is built into the play as a powerful metaphor of the price to be paid for blind greed and the logical extension of corporate corruption. Everything about Enron was about operating a system for the personal gain of the Houston, Texas, owners and executives at the expense of the shareholder.

Playwright Lucy Prebble – only her second play – bravo! – dramatises the obscenity of this in scenes between Samuel West's geeky-into-viciously sleek Enron president Jeffrey Skilling and a loyal, newly impoverished worker and the security guard whose dreams he's ruined.

The financial and political manoeuvrings are humanised at every turn, as Skilling outwits the brilliant Amanda Drew's sexpot rival (and also his office lover) for the presidency and bounces off the ingenious criminality of Tom Goodman-Hill's fair-faced financial controller, Andy Fastow.

The city-suited three blind mice of the opening sequence are soon replaced by the voracious armadillos of the debtors' court. These bestial figures indicate the expressionist side of Goold's production, which hangs the acting space with celestial neon-lit pipes and deploys the cast of chloric traders and office workers in the regimented choreography of Scott Ambler. The sensual excitement in trading in the markets is conveyed with real ingenuity and panache.

We have a comic double act of the Lehman Brothers, sharing a suit and a pitch, the schmutter and the patter. We see Skilling outpacing Fastow on the running treadmill in a funny scene of physical domination. And we see Skilling himself tipping into madness as he follows the sudden windfall of deregulation in the electricity business after the unexpected Bush triumph in the 2000 presidential election with a nutcase proposal of offering shares in the weather.

It's both a sharp, satirical diagnosis of the state we're in, as well as a new Brechtian epic of the rise and fall of a gangster produced and legitimised by the environment of the day. West builds an appropriately resonant performance, stuck on the simply devastating questions of his own daughter and the vanity of his own campaign. And he also pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of allowing us to like him.

Anthony Ward's design incorporates the best projections (by Jon Driscoll) we've seen for a long time, clear videos of Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman"), as well as a blizzard of market figures, a tickertape of falling shares and a cityscape of office blocks that dissolves like snowflakes in the sun.

Tim Pigott-Smith draws a fine portrait of the avuncular Enron owner and golf-lover, Ken Lay, while a really outstanding back-up cast also includes Susannah Fellowes in various guises, Gillian Budd and Eleanor Matsuura as cunningly deployed news reporters and Orion Lee as a sonorous senator who leads the enquiry into the whole tragic catastrophe.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments