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It’s Wednesday afternoon in the heart of London’s theatre-land in high summer. The night-time neon gloss that gives the area such an after-hours 42nd Street style buzz may not be much in evidence, but in terms of matinee audiences, Avenue Q, Chicago and all the other shows still seem to be doing good business. Round the corner at the Noel Coward, a darling little theatre named after the most English of playwrights and as old money as they come, there may be empty seats for the west end transfer of Enron, Lucy Prebble’s scurrilous musical treatment of the spectacular financial collapse of one of the biggest corporations on the planet, but business is steady.

Inside, seats aren’t occupied by the soporifically-inclined OAP set, but by tourists who look like they’ve just scored a last-minute stand-by seat after their first choice of Chicago sold out. Onstage, however, there is a kind of surrealist razzle-dazzle to a series of song and dance routines about a bunch of self-made city boys and girls who believe their ability to juggle with invisible money makes them invincible. As history has taught overpaid bankers from Lehman Brothers to ex RBS chair Fred Goodwin, they’re not.

Enron arguably set the tone. Over sixteen years, Kenneth Lay’s company had grown through a series of aggressively high-risk investments from being worth an already huge ten billion dollars to just shy of seventy billion. Yet to say the boardroom dealings were dodgy is something of an understatement, and when the books were eventually laid bare in all their glory, the company’s collapse took just twenty-four days.

Given its subject matter, the appearance of Enron, or indeed any play that cocks a snook at capitalism, on a west end stage is a glorious contradiction. While the play began life in the subsidised sector via a co-production between Headlong Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and London’s new writing epicentre the Royal Court, a commercial transfer wouldn’t last five minutes without a great deal of money behind it. Consequently this current tour, which arrives in Edinburgh tonight, has the names of four commercial co-producers at the top of the poster.

“We had this bizarre bidding war from the west end and Broadway,” Enron’s director Rupert Goold remembers on the same summer day in London, “and we did deals with theatre managements very quickly. But most theatres do have a relationship with money, and Chichester where we opened is very affluent and middle-class. Even the Royal Court may have claims on Look Back in Anger and plays in that tradition, but it’s still in Sloane Square. The difference I suppose is that the show has moved from being a plucky Pythonesque revue-like exploration of the world to something that has its own corporate muscle, and the performance has moved that way. There’s a paradox there with the show’s vaudeville style, but the show has mirrored the company.”

Arriving in the midst of a crisis in capitalism that has just seen the alliance government slash public spending in a way which will potentially cripple any arts organisation who might want to develop a future Enron, alongside the showbiz froth that invariably put bums on seats during times of recession, and Prebble’s play is a refreshingly apposite oddity. While biting the hands of big business that feeds it is hardly a new idea, even as artists in opposition rediscover a political sensibility and get back to a 1970s style grassroots DIY sensibility, to see a play savage real-life money-men with such unabashed brio actually runs the risk of neutering its dramatic purpose.

“I don’t think there’s any danger of the play being neutered,” Goold insists, “because the story is as classical tragedy, and there are willful Jacobean and Shakespearian elements there as well as the vaudeville cartoon satire. Most artists are on the left or are at least liberal, but the fact that the play’s starting point wasn’t just bemoaning these corrupt bankers, but was asking what was attractive about people like Alan Sugar and people in corporate finance who fly around in helicopters, because there is something attractive about them that is undeniable. So rather than ask how did we get into this terrible mess, the play recognises that there is something seductive about these people, and that very much captured something of the moment.

“Theatre that is about the moment, particularly the political moment, is always the most vital. Nothing is more eventful than a new play that talks politically to its time, and that includes any level of star cast revival. For me, I bet seeing Hair in 1968 was ten times more exciting than it would be seeing it now. What has also happened inevitably because of the economics of theatre over the last ten years is that there’s been a contraction of cast sizes, which can lead to a contraction of ambition in new writing, but here was a big play with a big production.

Enron nevertheless didn’t last long on Broadway, an even more conservative and infinitely less tolerant barometer of mainstream taste. Or maybe it was the show’s high-octane mix of sexed-up morality play and high-rolling pop art musical that comes complete with the sort of lowest common denominator techno that can provoke mass euphoria but ultimately end up leaving you feeling empty. Such a mixing and matching of forms is something Good feels doesn’t sit easily with Broadway audiences.

“On Broadway they tend to feel that their musicals are showbiz and their plays are high art,” he says. “The high cultural events in New York are really celebrated, and there’s something much more cartoony here than a well-made play. Also, the play doesn’t have a redeeming figure to root for. For British audiences watching American drama who’ve been brought up on American TV, there’s something very cool, but for American audiences watching something like this I think is probably very disturbing. Britain is still very much about class, while America is very much about money. The idea of making money is still kind of dirty in England, where in America it’s not. There’s still a frontier spirit in America. We were playing in a Democrat town as well, doing a play about a Republican moment.”

Almost five months on from that sunny matinee at the Noel Coward, Rupert Goold’s touring production arrives in Edinburgh tonight on the back of the UK coalition government’s swinging cuts in public services. These include an expected twenty-five per cent cut in arts funding, and calls for well-heeled philanthropists who might just have made their fortunes in dragon’s dens of the Enron variety to step into the breach.

“We all know the recession has hit and that the cuts are coming,” says Goold four months before the public spending cuts “but in terms of lifestyle I don’t think things have changed much. We don’t know what’s going to happen yet, and that makes people scared.”

Enron goes on regardless, with all its contradictions magnificently intact. In September Prebble’s play opened in Iceland of all places, and last month played the Dublin Theatre Festival. Where next, one wonders? Greece, perhaps? Spain? Or maybe some other recession-hit country? Wherever Enron goes, it may not run and run forever, but it’s still a hit. In a cut-throat commercial marketplace, it’ll do good business. Unlike its inspiration, it seems, this is one version of Enron that will survive the crash.

Enron, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, November 9th-13th

The Herald, November 8th 2010



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