Enron, Royal Court Theatre, October 2009Posted on 18 October 2009
With its sound effects, lighting, and occasional choreography this was the Sesame Street version of the Enron story, explained for those who missed the real thing. It was educational, showing the rise of the company under chairman Ken Lay, a glad-hander who had little idea of how the Enron bubble expanded nor why it was bound to implode. Lucy Prebble’s stage drama starts by focusing on the competition and sexual frisson between Jeffrey Skilling and Claudia Roe, showing Lay to be a decisive gambler who chooses Skilling to be the new chief executive, with his wild ideas of trading energy rather than producing it, as Roe wanted to do. Skilling then turns the aggressively ambitious Andy Fastow into chief financial officer so he can pursue his mad ideas of creating the Raptors — almost wholly owned subsidiaries of Enron — for swallowing debt. These extraordinary beasts, in which only a minority share of a minority share of a minority share was backed by real money, are well-staged as humans with alligator heads. For a public company the accountants, in this case Arthur Anderson, have to sign off on such creative accounting, and their doing so led to their own collapse.
As to the collapse of Enron itself we were shown how desperately they needed George Bush to win the 2000 presidential election to give them the deregulation of the Energy industry they’d been banking on to pay off the Raptors. In the process they failed, but screwed California, a folly that should never have happened if Ken Lay had half the political nous he imagined he had. Bush, who referred privately to Lay as ‘Kenny Boy’, had more important things to do than rescue him or his house of cards, and while Skilling got out before things went publicly pear-shaped, Lay continued to talk up the company to everyone. He and Skilling both screwed the employees, whose pension funds were tied up in Enron stock that became valueless as their jobs disappeared and the company went belly up.
This play showed a great deal about the rise of Enron, but omitted the story on how Lay, Skilling and Fastow were nailed. Living in America, I well remember in December 2002 being asked by English ingénues whether I really thought anyone would ever be convicted for the Enron fiasco. I replied that they already had, and the point is that Americans were apoplectic about this nonsense. It was criminal, and was prosecuted the same way a major crime family, or conspiracy, would be prosecuted. First you go for the smaller fry, giving them light sentences in return for cooperation so you can bring down larger game, until eventually you reach the top. This is what happened, but by the time they got to Ken Lay he conveniently died, leaving his wife with their ill-gotten gains. Skilling is now in prison, but his appeal is pending before the supreme court for sometime in 2010.
Samuel West did an excellent job of portraying Skilling as a man driven by a conviction he could outsmart everyone else, and really wasn’t guilty of anything worse than being a victim to forces beyond his control. Tim Pigott-Smith was Ken Lay, with his Texan accent and cheerful demeanour, sailing smooth seas and blithely unaware of the raptors beneath. Tom Goodman-Hill portrayed Andy Fastow, showing him to be a small man, rather like a graduate student whose PhD thesis wouldn’t even get him a receptionist’s job at the US Treasury, and Amanda Drew played Claudia Roe as a very smart, very sexy and attractive lady, who was lucky to be sacked when she was.
The whole thing was well directed by Rupert Goold, with clever designs by Anthony Ward. I particularly liked the ‘alligator’ raptors, and the Lehmann Brothers appearance with two men in one coat. Despite slight misgivings, it was an evening that didn’t drag for a minute, and like Sesame Street kept the audience entertained while informing them of the basics they ought to know.
In 2010 this is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s West End.