Posts Tagged ‘ Sam West ’

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.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

What do Equus, The Romans in Britain, recent productions of King Lear and Edward Bond’s The Fool have in common?

Daniel Radcliffe naked in Equus

They all featured people in the altogether, their birthday suit: nude. But is it necessary? What does nudity achieve on stage and is there an argument that asking actors to appear naked is, at best, objectifying them, at worst, exploitation?

As the theatre critic for a local paper in Willesden and Kilburn, I saw four out of six of the plays which made up the Cock Tavern Theatre’s Edward Bond season. Two of these featured nudity and I began to ask myself why playwrights and directors do it.

To take the Bond example first: Bond’s particular shtick is showing extreme violence on stage in an attempt to shock the audience into recognising the violence in our own society. The nudity is part of this. There is no question that nudity in Bond’s work is to do with exploitation. In The Fool, an old vicar is stripped first of his riches, then his outer clothes, then his under garments (this was set in Victorian times, so we’re talking long johns) and finally his under pants.

Ben Crispin as John Clare in The Cock Tavern's The Fool The character was being abused and exploited. But what about the actor? And remember that this was staged in the tiny Cock Tavern Theatre (let’s just get the pun about this being an apt place to stage plays involving nudity out of the way now). There was nowhere to hide for the actor, the audience were three metres away at most and there was nothing subtle about the lighting of this scene. I wondered whether the actor had known about this scene when he’d auditioned. And how much he was getting paid.

While the nudity here didn’t feel gratuitous, it was excruciating and made the audience’s position feel hugely inappropriate, heartless and voyeuristic. And perhaps this was Bond’s point – but it made me distinctly nervous about going to another play by him. And if I hadn’t been reviewing the season, I probably would have avoided the later shows. This particular scene felt too real – we weren’t watching people pretending to strip an old man naked and then pinch him all over. They were actually doing this.

But nudity needn’t be harrowing. Back in 2006, I saw Sam West’s production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the Crucible. What seemed like 10 completely naked men cart-wheeled across the stage, frolicked (there is no other word for it) in an enormous swimming pool and, aside from the notorious gay rape scene, generally had a whale of a time. The actors seemed to be liberated and there was no hint of awkwardness. This was a celebration of the human form.

One acting coach is firmly of the view that nudity on stage is exploitative and he makes a good case, but Michael Billington wrote this persuasive piece when Daniel Radcliffe was appearing in Equus some years ago, suggesting that nudity should just be one tool in a director’s kit (!) and nothing to fill newspaper columns about.

Personally, at the moment, I feel that if I ever see another naked, cowering man on stage, it will be too soon. What about you?

A Fearsome Foursome of Fausts

London has become a city of damned souls.  And one damned soul, in particular: Dr John Faust is everywhere.Faust Young Vic by Vesturport and Reykjavík City Theater Faust’s tale is one of ambition, hell-fire and damnation: since medieval times his story has fascinated and horrified.

Goethe grappled with this anti-hero throughout his life, Marlowe made it into his most famous play and composers Berlioz and Gounod set it to music. More recently, the Fates have conspired to saturate 21st-century London with Faust’s tragedy. Why do we poor sinners keep coming back to it?

BBC Radio3 were the first to jump into the inferno with a production whose ambition was matched only by its protagonist’s. In September, Sam West starred as Goethe’s Faust opposite Toby Jones as Mephistopheles; Derek Jacobi and Anna Maxwell Martin also featured. ENO is currently staging Gounod’s five-act opera (based on Goethe’s text) and the Young Vic has an unorthodox circus production, again based loosely on Goethe.

Dr Faustus with MephistophelesThe Faust story first appeared in the Faustbuch in 1587 and was initially popular as a tale of damnation: a sixteenth-century scandal story. But if the original medieval tale was one of religious finger-wagging, Goethe had a completely different agenda. His Faust is an idealist: like Marlowe’s creation, Goethe’s hero seeks knowledge and self-realization.

Good and evil, black and white, innocence and guilt: Goethe and Marlowe blurred these previously impermeable boundaries. In doing so they created dramatic texts which are more relevant now than ever.

Marlowe, who was accused of being an atheist*(among other things), had little interest in black and white morality. Instead, his play is a tragedy: his hero is not evil, but human; the tragedy springs not from an evil soul, but Faust’s hunger for knowledge.

The relentless quest for knowledge is familiar to us. Modern microscopes and telescopes have opened new visual worlds, scientists have delved into the workings of our own bodies and developments in health care mean we are living longer than ever.

Only last month, Stephen Hawking declared that science has displaced God. Marlowe’s Renaissance man would be eminently at home in our world of scepticism, science and selfishness. Faust’s desire to be young again (in Goethe’s reading) is a pre-figuring of our own society’s desire to look youthful. Marlowe’s Faust asks to meet Helen (of the long legs) of Troy – the most beautiful woman ever to have lived: of course he didn’t have the modern men’s mag, Playboy (…on second thoughts, I won’t add a hyperlink there), to turn to.

Faust is a thoroughly modern man: disillusioned with life, nihilistic and solipsistic. His story’s current vogue is no coincidence: modern audiences identify with Faust, his temptations are our own, his desires are ones we recognize. The chilling lesson for modern audiences is that we no longer need God to damn us: we already do that ourselves.

*in the Baines note: “A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word”