As compared to the global financial meltdown of 2008, the story of Enron, the US-based energy-trading firm that imploded in 2001, seems like small potatoes. Of course, the past is prologue. The valuation and trading of intangibles, the creative bookkeeping and a disillusioned and defrauded public mark both Enron’s collapse and the recent global calamity as examples of the rot inherent in a freewheeling free market. It seems that the Enron debacle was only the tip of the economic iceberg. Its collapse was not a once off, an aberration of an otherwise healthy system. Rather, Enron’s duplicity now serves as the model by which Wall Street and other financial centres appear to operate.
Lucy Prebble’s Enron attempts to penetrate the murky dealings and webs of intrigue that led to the company’s eventual fall. The play opens in the 1990s, where Jeffrey Skilling (Corey Johnson) is at loggerheads with colleague, competitor, and friend-with-benefits Claudia Roe (Sara Stewart) over the direction that Enron should take into the 21st century. Roe believes Enron should invest in the traditional infrastructure necessary to deliver gas and electricity around the world, while Skilling schemes to develop Enron into a one-of-a-kind clearinghouse through which energy futures are traded like pork bellies or orange juice. Enron founder and chairman Ken Lay (Clive Francis), like every good magnate, is all for quick profits and financial celebrity, and so puts Skilling in the driver’s seat. The company quickly becomes a poster child for the supposed benefits of deregulation and “innovative” trading practices that inflate profit margins. There is only one problem: Enron isn’t actually making any real money and ends up being thirty billion dollars in debt.
While the ins and outs of trading virtual commodities can seem as clear as mud to the casual observer, director Rupert Goold’s attempts to simplify and theatricalise these complicated economic processes are only partly successful. The production aims for the sheen of a high-power Broadway musical, complete with snappy, ironic song and dance numbers and flashy stage gimmicks. Goold and company seem to have a penchant for unsubtle metaphors: Enron’s board of director’s, apparently unaware of the true nature of Skilling’s shenanigans, are portrayed as three blind mice, while the financial services firm Lehman Brothers is embodied as, well, Siamese twin brothers. When Skilling needs to offload Enron’s increasing debt to keep its stock value high, he turns to company CFO Andy Fastow (Paul Chahidi), who develops shadow companies in which to hide shortfalls that he terms “raptors”, after the reptilian antagonists of the film Jurassic Park. Sure enough, actors with raptor heads appear and begin feeding off dollar bills from the hands of Fastow and Skilling.
The ensemble song and dance numbers, which culminated in a mix of pop culture signifiers ranging from Star Wars to The Matrix, all seemed put in place to mask the paucity of Prebble’s pedestrian script. In spite of some snappy one-liners, the characters of Skilling, Fastow, Row, and Lay all come across like two-dimensional functions of a rather straightforward plot. And the performances, for the most part, are approached just like that: they are functional, hitting the broad marks of anger, fear, and manufactured hysteria whenever it is deemed necessary by the arbitrary rise or fall of the action. It’s clear these actors are talented, committed professionals; however, whether worn down by the rigours of a heavy touring schedule or the demands of adapting to a new venue, the ensemble as a whole lacked the sharpness and tightness of execution that appears to be the production’s ambition.
What Enron does achieve is the boiling down of a rather complex and intangible mode of industry. The play serves almost as a sort of clever, step-by-step lecture on the nature of a financial calamity and how it relates to the present we find ourselves in. But it is no more than that. While it rails against American culture’s dread of ambiguity, the play really offers us none. We know who the baddies are right from the start and really learn nothing new about their humanity or our own at the end of the day. Just as Enron the company sought to mask its debt in order to increase its market value, Enron the play appears to mask its lack of emotional and intellectual depth in a flashy parade of simplistic set pieces.