Stars including Dominic West, Micky Dolenz and Frank Skinner attended the first night of Enron at the Noël Coward theatre last night, a play by 29-year-old Lucy Prebble which achieves the unlikely feat of making the financial crisis both accessible and entertaining.
In fact it was the third press night for Enron, which began life at Chichester Festival Theatre before moving to the Royal Court and the West End. The play, which yesterday earned director Rupert Goold a Best Director Critics’ Circle Award, recounts the collapse of American energy trading company Enron in 2001, which resulted in its Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling and Chief Financial Officer Andy Fastow being convicted of fraud and insider trading.
“No one ever thought a play about accounting at the studio in Chichester was ever going to hit the West End,” Tom Goodman-Hill told Official London Theatre at the after-party at Asia de Cuba. Nevertheless, Goodman-Hill, who plays Fastow, said he knew when he first read the script that Prebble had created something special. “It’s such an extraordinary play. For me, when I first read the scene between Fastow and Skilling where Fastow explains how he is going to hide the debt, I was so gripped by that scene, even on the page, I couldn’t believe Lucy had successfully explained something that I don’t think anybody could possibly fathom, and then to make it dramatic and interesting and funny and witty and exciting. It’s extraordinary.”
Samuel West, who plays Skilling, also saw the potential in Prebble’s play, to the extent that he turned down work to audition for it. That potential was able to be fully realised, he feels, thanks to theatre company Headlong and director Goold’s ability to produce the play when it was most timely. “Headlong is a live and flexible company that brought forward the production date as soon as the financial world collapsed, by about six months, so they immediately programmed a show that they knew people wanted to hear about.”
The fact that Goold had been working with Prebble for two years, said West, was another reason why he “was quite hopeful that it was going to be a piece of quality and possibly of relevance. It’s one of those rare jobs where things have really come together well, and I think that’s a lot to do with the way that Headlong and Chichester and the Royal Court have collaborated and allowed us, for instance, five weeks of rehearsal [and] two years of development. All of these things make our work better and they are incredibly important and need defending.”
It has been an exciting journey for playwright Prebble, who said she “had to sit down in the street” when she saw the billboards for Enron outside the Noël Coward theatre.
The idea for the play, she said last night, came because she always felt there was little written on stage about the world of industry and finance, given the amount of people who are involved in those worlds. “When a story came along that I researched and read about that I thought was truly dramatic and theatrical, I thought well that seems to be an ideal place to explore that, so that’s when I started looking into Enron.”
That Prebble can make the dry subject of finance entertaining and dramatic is partly due to her desire to research the human aspects of the story. “Economics is only about human behaviour,” she said. “It’s not like physics or chemistry, where there’s a definite answer. Economics is about how people behave, how they spend their money, how they don’t spend their money; it’s herd behaviour. It’s actually very psychological, and that is the realm of the playwright.”
“The second thing that’s important is that once you’ve done your research, remember your ignorance,” added Prebble, explaining her ability to “bring clarity to a complex story”, as Lyn Gardner says in The Guardian. “Remember that when you first sat down, you didn’t know what a hedge fund was, you didn’t know what a credit default swap was. And actually if you can remember those things you will know how 90 per cent of the audience feel when they sit down, and therefore how the story is best told.”
Not only has the play entertained audiences, but the nature of the story has provided a lot of enjoyment for the actors, too, who get to inhabit a world so different from their own. “The fun of playing a collaborative group who are being terribly competitive, it’s very exciting,” said West. “We don’t really get to meet those people. Basically we spend our lives trying to cooperate. Most of the world spends its life in competition with each other.”
“This is one of the easiest and most enjoyable rehearsal periods I’ve ever had I think,” he added. “Partly because it was in my road. I rehearsed in the nearest public building to my bedroom, which made an enormous difference, I recommend it!”