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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Enron, interview with Rupert Goold

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Enron, interview with Rupert Goold

LIKE the stock exchange itself, Lucy Prebble's Enron has had its highs and lows. When the play premiered in Chichester last year it earned rave reviews and, after transferring to London and winning a clutch of awards, it broke box office records at the Noel Coward Theatre. All was set for a triumphant run on Broadway, but when Rupert Goold's production opened in May, this play about the fall of a mighty American company met with a tepid-to-hostile reception and closed almost immediately.

Six months later, Enron's stock is rising again as it sets out on a UK tour. "When we opened, it was the first hit of the credit crunch and nobody knew whether it meant the end of the world," says Goold. "When we were in New York, we were at the height of Obama pushing through new financial regulations, which Democratic New York couldn't bear, and it played in a very different political context. I went to see it in Sheffield last night and now, in the age of austerity, the audience really felt much angrier again."

Even before the cuts, Enron's relevance was far reaching. The day after I saw it in London a few months ago, I met a woman on her way to work. She was looking forward to seeing the play, she said, because it was thanks to Enron she had so much boring paperwork to do. Being American, her company was subject to the increased bureaucratic stringency introduced by the US government in reaction to Enron's exploitation of loopholes in the system. If it signed a deal with another company, that company had to be more than a figment of an accountant's imagination.

It is this kind of direct experience that makes Enron a play for our times. Prebble presents a rise-and-fall tragedy that we cannot dismiss as a one-off story.

The masterminds of Enron's scheme - Jeffrey Skilling, the chief executive officer and Andy Fastow, the chief finance officer - were guilty of paving the way for the biggest collapse in corporate history, but the play makes it clear they were not isolated mavericks. They were part of a greed-driven system, technically no different from others like them, except they were very good at what they did.

"If anything, it's an indictment of a system and certainly not of a character," says Goold. "Skilling is human and has many redeeming qualities, as indeed Enron had as a company: it wasn't voted most innovative company for all those years in a row for nothing."

One of the reasons for the play's success is that it avoids being a simple anti-capitalist rant. There is something alluring about the charismatic captains of industry when, in the first half, the Enron share price rockets and it seems they can do no wrong.

"Of course, we all know corporate finance is corrupt, greedy and unpleasant, but there is also something really sexy, dynamic and galvanising about it," says Goold, whose playful staging features everything from barber shop singing to hi-tech video, from dinosaurs in the basement to great chorus-like images of the trading floor.

Skilling's complex scheme involved banking on theoretical future profits, abandoning the need to trade in real commodities and burying the bad debt in an all-but-fictitious company. It is only in the second half that the folly of his faith in the market becomes evident. "We had this debate when we were developing the piece about whether it should be the fall of Rome or Richard III," says Goold. "We pushed strongly that it should be like a Renaissance tragedy and that Skilling should be a classical tragic over-reacher."

What he did was wrong - as the thousands who lost their jobs, savings and pensions will attest - but it sprang from the corporate culture that many in the Edinburgh audience will recognise because it is the same gung-ho attitude that led to the banking collapse. Skilling was exceptional in the magnitude of his rise and fall, but he was also a product of his times. "In any walk of life, we push a bit," says the director. "Skilling did that very brilliantly - and ultimately corruptly - but I hope it is a thought-provoking piece."

One of Prebble's great achievements is to make dramatic sense of accounting practices that can leave even trained economists bewildered. "Audiences are hungry to learn as long as it's not too heavy going," says Goold. "One of the things I'm proudest of is that here we are going up and down the country with no star names and yet we're playing to packed houses with a piece of political theatre."

Enron, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday to Saturday

© Mark Fisher 2010

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