Probably the same kind of expectations, in fact, that its protagonist Jeffrey Skilling felt while running what was one of the world’s most powerful companies. To take his story – one of stock prices, shadow companies, energy trading and one of the biggest financial scandals ever – and make it accessible to audiences with no knowledge of such a jargon-heavy business is no easy feat. In the hands of playwright Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold, this Headlong theatre co-production both demystifies and entertains.
The piece thrives on being unremittingly theatrical in a way in which Goold specialises, a way which makes numbers, money and energy both artistic and understandable.
Every time the grinding details of money and company politics could throw up a barrier to understanding, Prebble and Goold combine to knock that barrier down. Traders sing elegiac odes to commodities and wield lightsabres, their complicated code of gestures morphing into intricate choreography. Wit wets the dryness of digits, both in Prebble’s playful script and Goold’s choices and imagery.
Though the big picture is the story of a crumbling company and economy, it is the characters at its centre which make it compelling. Samuel West’s Skilling transforms from frustrated geek complete with ill-fitting suit and comb-over hair, to slick, fit, risk-taking leader and darling of the financial world. His right hand man, Tom Goodman-Hill’s Andy Fastow, leaves his timid, hero-worshipping whipping boy behind to lurk in a self-created dungeon with the oddest of pets, from which he taunts the investment banks.
The show’s prologue features a lawyer explaining: “When we tell you this story, it could never be exactly what happened.” More’s the pity; if it had happened this way, it would have been a whole lot more entertaining and the rest of the world might have actually understood what was going on.