Sunday, 31 January 2010

Theatre Review: ENRON

Enron, now in the West End having sold out at its two earlier venues, is without doubt top-notch, cracking theatre, as extolled by all reviewers. The audience is duly riveted and the interval discussions are animated. At one point the production was marketed as Enron – the Musical, and the show certainly deploys lights, music & action to great effect. It could be recommended for this alone.

But while succeeding brilliantly in creating a spectacle, the playwright Lucy Prebble has clearly aimed higher still, and it bears a bit of analysis.

The subject-matter is juicy. Over little more than a decade, a dozy gas pipeline company revolutionised first the energy markets in the USA, then commodity markets worldwide, propelled by one of the greatest business visionaries and implementers the world has ever seen (Jeff Skilling - now in gaol, unlike hoards of far more deserving bankers - is comfortably the equal of a Gates, and vastly superior to a Welch), aided and abetted by some of the strongest personalities ever to don a business suit or push-up bra. They were strongly opposed by the vested interests and old energy monopolies every step of the way, but they prevailed. They were doing amazing, explosive things in an explosive way. And in 2001 they imploded – corporately, personally, the whole shebang. Shakespearean, or what ?

Long-suffering readers of C@W will know that I approach the Enron thing with *ahem* close interest, and a clear memory. There is no point in splitting hairs over precise chronologies or characterisations – we can be generous with artistic licence, particularly if Prebble’s aim is to educate the audience on the business dynamics of what happened. And, since we are given potted explanations of mark-to-market accounting (yes!) and the ‘Raptor’ off-balance-sheet financing vehicles, it is hard to deny the didactic aspect of the play (though reading the Fleet Street reviews, some people come away thinking they understand stuff that in truth they do not).

But this isn't Finance 1.01, or even 9.06: there’s an attempt to explore deeper issues. Imagine a number of speeches in the same line as Michael Douglas’ famous “greed is good” in Wall Street, but more subtle and compelling – Skilling gives a defence of arbitrage, e.g. - and you are fast moving away from anything that could be viewed as simplistic, lefty anti-capitalism (ironic, since Sam West, truly excellent as Skilling, has a Trotskyite past). The concluding sermon suggests that human endeavour, and indeed civilisation itself, progresses via mighty booms and busts.

I suspect that different viewers will come away with very, very different readings. Some will see conventional personal tragedy. Some will see a morality tale. Some, yes, may feel they hear support for an anti-capitalist thesis; but others a hymn to bold capitalist risk-taking.

Personally, I’d like to see Prebble given a vehicle to explore the
subtleties and big themes even further. She’s done so well in what can be achieved in two hours or so, she deserves a 1,000 page novel - or a four-part operatic cycle. The subject-matter is rich enough to sustain it.

And then she would indeed need to get the characterisations and the chronology correct.



CityUnslicker said...

Would love to go and see this, having trouble persuading Mrs CU....

Nick Drew said...

try harder!

wot more can I say, it is excellent on all levels

- there's a sex scene

- the song-n-dance is great

- the SFX are great

- and the little Raptors are adorable !

AntiCitizenOne said...

Does it mention the push for Carbon Trading??

Steven_L said...

I was having trouble sleeping Nick, so I read that link about the SPE's etc.

To be honest, I didn't really understand it that well, did they go mad at the end or something?

Nick Drew said...

ACO - no: though from memory, there was already sulphur-emission trading in the USA in the late '90's

funnily enough, towards the end Skilling makes a speech explaining how weather trading would work - Enron was the first market-maker in WT - and most of the audience (and indeed one of the theatre reviewers) took this as a sign that he had finally flipped ! ah well

Nick Drew said...

Steven - that's real insomnia !

I wouldn't characterise it quite like that. Enron's problem was the oldest one of all for a fast-growing company - cash-flow lagged profits, big-time. But they couldn't borrow to bridge the gap because they were only BBB+ and any more debt would have taken them below investment-grade, which would have meant an end to the massive long-term deals which generated the profits !

initially this was solved by securitisations and Total Return Swaps - 100% above board and very clever - and SPEs are an integral part of this (I have some wonderfully cryptic tombstones ...)

but by degrees the securitisations and the TRSs got more and more, err, *far-fetched*, and self-referential, and finally just plain self-limiting

the cure would have been for Enron to stop growing for a while, and consolidate. But E had been sold to Wall Street as a growth stock, and everyone was paid in stock, and so who is going to authorise curtailing growth ??

OK, so it all went mad ...

Steven_L said...

Thanks Nick, we never learn do we?

ratbag said...

Someone should get cracking on Goldman Sachs, The Musical.....provided they have a good legal team!

Nick Drew said...

have been known to pen a few songs, ratbag, but the C@W revenues don't go very far towards legal fees

ENRON skirts around a few issues, too (- wonder why ?). They mention the accountants Arthur Andersen (now defunct) but not the lawyers ...

and the brassy, money-burning female character is 'Claudia'. Not Rebecca. No, Sir.