Posts Tagged ‘ Enron ’

Exclusive interview with Enron writer Lucy Prebble

Mark-to-market, hedging, special purpose entities and actors in dinosaur masks. Lucy Prebble’s play Enron confounded expectations and made the complex, number-driven world of global finance dramatic, comprehensible and even funny.

Enron opened at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester to ecstatic reviews in the summer of 2009, propelling Prebble to fame. The play transferred to the Royal Court, then to the West End and has just completed a national tour.

Lucy Prebble Enron

photography by Jordan Bassett

When we meet in a small coffee shop in Soho it’s hard to believe that the bright, brash West End show, came from the pen of such a polite and composed young woman – but that’s what makes Prebble so fascinating. Her main aim in writing the show was not, she tells me, to pass judgement or explain the complex financial camouflage that brought the company down – although it did both of these – but simply not to be boring.

“I felt really passionately that it would be very easy to write a play that says ‘we all know how this ends, we all know it’s terrible, aren’t all these people bad.’ We decided very early on it mustn’t be boring at any moment, because that’s what people expect of a play about corporate finance. But it is really fun, to work on a trading floor – it is really glamorous and it is really really profitable if you do it well. And those are all things human beings are drawn to and to pretend that we’re not is what perpetuates the cycle.”

Anyone who has seen the play will recall the “Raptors” – business entities which gobbled up Enron’s toxic debt. “It seemed completely appropriate,” explained Prebble, “to have dangerous financial instruments – financial instruments that have hurt people and broken their lives – come alive and be portrayed as vicious creatures, in this case velociraptors. So once you’ve decided that you’re essentially going to dramatise the theoretical and make it real, you’re already entering a slightly absurdist world, that’s not dull.”

EnronEnron opened at the height of the global credit crunch – although Prebble has always insisted this was down to luck rather than a gift of foresight. But she has become the go-to-girl for scripts on finance. “The last thing I want to be is the “money” girl or the girl who writes about finance. I find it really interesting and I wrote a play about it but now I find other stuff interesting.”

The stuff she finds interesting is, by her own admission, quite “full-on” – she’s currently working on a film about the Stasi and another play about humans used in drug trials. But what drew her to Enron was, she says, the macho aspect of the story.

“You can’t avoid the link between testosterone and risk-taking – it’s medically proven. In the locker-room world of the trading floor, you’re as big as your bonus is. It is quite phallic and aggressive and that’s part of the fun of it. The masculinity of the world never consciously entered my mind although I’m certain that subconsciously I was drawn to it because of that.”

When I suggest a parallel with what seems to be a male-dominated world of theatre writing, Prebble pulls me up. “You’ll find a lot of women writers – in the theatre – who do one or two plays and then aren’t seen much more. The reasons for that aren’t necessarily related to gender specifically but more practical. You’ll find a huge amount of women who started off in theatre but move into film and television because it’s much more financially rewarding and it’s a child friendly profession. Women writers are still writing, they’re just writing in a different medium, in a way that suits them better.”

Secret Diary of a Call Girl Billie PiperPrebble knows a thing or two about the medium of TV: she created the series Secret Diary of a Call Girl after coming across the Belle de Jour blog. The Belle character, who chose to become a high-paid prostitute and document her exploits online, proved as controversial as she was popular and Prebble, who left the series after writing the first 18 episodes, admits she had trouble with the character and the kind of scripts she was being asked to write.

“I left the series because I felt that, unfortunately, I wasn’t really being allowed to write what I wanted to write – more ambitious, complex drama. That’s the problem with Television really: yes you get paid more and yes you probably get more consistent work but you’re really not in control of your product at all.”

And this is a constant dilemma for Prebble: writing for TV is consistent but often comes without recognition; writing for theatre is respected but comes with intense scrutiny. After her first play, The Sugar Syndrome, was put on Upstairs at the Royal Court, Prebble struggled with a lack of self-confidence and after she had a play rejected in what she calls “the worst meeting I’d ever had in my life”, she turned to television.

“In TV no one knows who writes their favourite shows, no one even knows who’s written their favourite films, so I found that strangely helped me because I didn’t feel a lot of pressure on me personally. I felt like I was contributing to something that was bigger than me. Bizarrely, even though theatre’s the place where you get the most respect as a writer, it’s the place where you also get the most attention, the focus. And if you’re not the sort of person who necessarily wants that, it can be quite intimidating.”

As she talks it becomes clear that although Prebble has had enormous success as a writer, she has also been through the mill a bit to get there. She speaks of the loneliness of the writer, her self-doubt and the huge amount of will-power needed to get something on the page. “Writing is honestly, a depressing experience and it’s an act of getting over your own lack of self-confidence to write something. Mostly I have to get myself to a place of such self-disgust in how depressed I am about how little I’ve written that I’m then forced into writing something.”

But then, I suppose no one ever said being a critically acclaimed writer was easy.

Advertisements

Enron

Lucy Prebble’s Enron is truly a tale for our times. While the eponymous American energy giant may have collapsed like a card-house in late 2001, the UK economy is still in a delicate condition. While the newspapers still daily dedicate their front-pages to the “Recession” and “Bonuses”, Enron will be on-the-pulse relevant.

Prebble has written an epic in the Brechtian mould and Rupert Goold’s production jumps at this implicit invitation to be imaginative, fantastical and to pile on the special effects. The result is varied. At its best, Goold’s production forces his audience to look again at certain business practices and acknowledge their utter absurdity. The businesses created by Enron to consume their debt were named “Raptors”. Cue four actors dressed as velociraptors prowling the office basement. At other points, however, the special effects are simply gimmicks: some cursory footage of Bill Clinton, at one point, added little to the production and was largely irrelevant.

The key players in the Enron collapse are brought to the stage exquisitely by Sam West, Tom Goodman-Hill and Tim Pigott-Smith. Sam West’s nerd turned self-deluded demi-God, Jeffrey Skilling, displays a dangerous calmness of manner. With a mere turn of his head or lift of an eye-brow West manages to suggest Skilling’s slimy unknowability. Tom Goodman-Hill creates a chief financial officer who is no more than an over-excited school boy: he brings to mind chaotic high school drama lessons you’d rather forget. Ken Lay is both baffling and baffled: Tim Pigott-Smith presents him as a hands-off bumbling old-school business man. Not the architect of a fraudulent business empire built on sand. With the exception of Andy Fastow, all the characters in Prebble’s play act as if ignorant of the consequences of their actions: this is perhaps fitting given that the real Skilling and Lay subsequently denied wrong-doing.

The most memorable lesson – and this is very much a tale with a moral – from Prebble’s play is that truth can be stranger than fiction. Who would have believed that Jeffrey Skilling had a wife and daughter, if it weren’t actually the case? Who would have believed that the stock analysts gobbled down the company’s own positive assessments, if it hadn’t actually happened? Who would have believed that such a large scale multi-million dollar fraud could have gone unnoticed for so long, if it hadn’t actually happened? Enron forces us to look with fresh eyes at our capitalist society and acknowledge the absurdity of it all.

The play’s main weakness, however, springs from its strength: Prebble and Goold realise that they have a great story on their hands, a morality tale for the modern day. But they tell the story and nothing more. Enron is, in the end, a dramatisation, not an exploration of greed. It refuses to answer the very question it repeatedly asks: ‘Why’.

Enron is currently playing at the Noël Coward theatre, London.

4/5

 

Advertisements