By Lucy Prebble, Royal Court Theatre, London; Until 7 November
Lucy Prebble's new play at the Royal Court Theatre charts the rise and fall of the Enron corporation, whose spectacular demise in 2001 provided a foretaste of last year's financial crisis.
The story begins with an ambitious young executive, Jeffrey Skilling (Samuel West), introducing Enron employees to a scheme called "mark to market". This is a way for the company to predict the profits it expects to make on future investments, and declare them straight away - effectively making money immediately on transactions that haven't even occurred yet.
The apparent success of this scheme leads Skilling, soon promoted to CEO, to seek out even more extreme ways to inflate Enron's profits, eventually creating a dummy "shadow company" as a depository for the spiralling debts upon which Enron's artificially stimulated share price is secretly secured.
If this all sounds a little dry, it shouldn't - Rupert Goold's energetic production abounds with music, singing and dancing, all driven by an impressive ensemble cast. Some inventive costume choices involve Enron board members dressed as three blind mice, energy traders wielding light-sabres, and a growing pack of suited velociraptors who "consume" the company's debt.
Nevertheless the heart of Prebble's play remains in the dialogue, and she deserves credit for communicating a lot of complex detail with surprising clarity. While Enron is a play with factual subject matter, the famous fate of this one corporation is not presented as an aberration of the market. Rather Skilling constantly argues that what he is doing is simply a logical extension of the drive for profit necessitated by capitalism, and sought by his competitors.
Prebble doesn't fail to remind her audience of the timeliness of the production, as the list of Enron's rivals doubles as a list of banks and corporations that went to the wall when the current financial crisis broke. Particular fun is had with the Lehman brothers, who appear on stage together, three-legged, wearing a single trench coat.
Images projected onto the back wall - which include coverage from the 2000 presidential election and a collapsing World Trade Centre - aim to contextualise the corporate calamities, with limited success. The play is perhaps at its most incisive in showing the collaborative relationship between US capital and the US government. Enron's executives do their best to help assure an election victory for "Dubya" but, true to form, "hedge" their bets by giving money to the Democrats as well. Even after the company's fraud comes to light, a US senator tellingly states, "The American government will not stand for corporate crime on this scale. I mean, on any scale."
The play's weakest scenes come towards the end when former employees - who Skilling encouraged to swap their wages for Enron shares - arrive to berate their former boss. Prebble's skill at creating the atmosphere of the macho, cut-throat culture of the capitalist credit bubble perhaps hamstrings her ability to relate that world to a broader context, and her working class characters are disappointingly stereotypical.
Nevertheless, Enron is an impressive and clearly well researched play and an enjoyable, if very cerebral, experience.