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Sunday 9 June 2013

NEW THEATRE’S ‘ENRON’ dissected by me

Whoever said it’s a disaster to combine entertainment and education in the theatre? ‘Enron’ takes all of those things, the disaster that was Enron and unpacks its pieces so that the average punter can understand how it happened, then gift wrap it with a side of vaudeville and theatrical metaphor. The New Theatre’s ‘Enron’, directed by Louise Fischer, will leave its audience satisfied on all counts.

I don’t think the New could attract a more diverse audience if it tried. I love a bit of audience eavesdropping and from what I heard, there were loved up couples, some very experienced theatre patrons, the slightly drunk man and his friends in the third row and a group of young adults who are genuinely surprised by what is about to unfold. I heard them ask ‘I kind of wonder what's going to happen in the second half’ and I thought, ‘how can that be?’ And then I’m reminded that when Enron went down, during the whole 9/11 tragedy, and required a US$5 trillion dollar bailout to keep the economy afloat, some of these audience members were probably only 10. I almost fell on the floor when my 16 old students didn’t know the specific particulars of 9/11 before they reminded me that they were 4 at the time. See, while the events of the play feel so recent in my mind, that’s what’s smart about Lucy Prebble’s play- it delivers the events of Enron in a way that offers insight into 90’s corporate values that define who we are today. This is more than a historical play. It’s a lesson in greed, excess and the loss of tangible assets in a virtual world.

The four mains in this play are really strong. Matt Young (Jeffrey Skilling), Cassandra Lee Heschl (Claudia Rose), Nick Curnow (Andy Fastow) and Peter Flett (Kenneth Lay) really deliver the goods. They each capture, in their roles, either the ambition to build something for the future or how to future-build their ambition. Of course, Prebble has given them great material to work with and director Fischer has brought it to life on stage. I was surprised to read that Cassandra Lee Heschl has just returned to acting after considerable time away from the craft because she brought an experienced nuance and depth to Claudia Rose and created one of the only likeable yet flawed characters on stage. Perhaps it because the character of Claudia Rose is so old school in her business ideals that we middle-aged cronies are attracted to her. She is not above manipulating others and is not painted as a saint but when she utters at the end of the play, ‘Is it true that my division was the only one that made money?’, after her unceremonious dismissal, we can’t help sharing in the glee that she was right to practice business as she did. Aren’t we still romantics like that?

Matt Young made Skilling as unlikeable as you could hope. But amongst all that corporate villainy, we recognise he’s a victim of his own making and trapped so firmly in the appearance of success, and rewarded for it, that admitting his flaws become impossible. Same can be said for Curnow’s Andy Fastow. It’s a classic case of the accountancy whiz triumphing over his bullies at the expense of any integrity he may have possessed. We see how desperately he wants to please and will find anyway to do it. Flett’s turn as Kenneth Lay was a blend of loyalty mixed with rewarding excess in conflict with that loyalty. He doesn’t understand this new world he’s been thrust into but recognises he can profit from it and in the end, his way forward is to head in a direction way beyond his comfort zone. Profit trumps morals. His abandonment of what made him successful in order to create more ethereal success was a clear recipe for disaster. Even when the fallout of Enron’s crash was engulfing him, instead of trying to find the truth, his classic line, ‘You don’t bury a dog and then dig it up to smell it’ captures the deliberate corporate ignorance of dodgy practices that have made CEO’s billions but bankrupt the common man.

There were a number of lovely stage elements that gave the play theatricality beyond the normal doco-drama. I enjoyed the ‘box’ metaphors but the inclusion of the caged ‘raptors’ was my moment of the match. It was fun having the 90’s flashbacks, although it felt a little amateurish at times. Clarisse Ambroselli’s set allows for the creative use of levels but can feel clunky in moments, especially as it seemed to slow down the action unnecessarily.

There’s lots of energy coming from the ensemble and apart from a slowness to respond to cues by some, they serve the play well.

I don’t always love each play put on by the New but I do appreciate the variety they offer and the sense of involvement by its theatre community. 'Enron' sometimes feels clunky and forced but there is much more to like than not. This is a play to support. Get yourself a ticket to ‘Enron’ and regardless of what you either know or don’t about the insalubrious trading fiasco of Enron, you’ll come out better informed and entertained.


  1. There is no point in lowering your standards when you deal with a smaller pro or am company - New Theatre, Griffin, etc - as you seem to do.I think you are wrong about the performances, wronger about the play, wrongest abat the production. Did you really have a good night at the theatre with 'Enron'?

    The performances: Matt Young and Peter Flett - the latter always reliable - yes. Of course there is no point in calling the acting in an amateur theatre amateurish, but there was far too much of it. Most Australian actors begin as amateurs; let us remember that that originally meant 'one who loves', but I did not see many actors relishing their work, generously giving. Hard, I suppose, to muster a large company and rehearse them for a show like this.

    The play: too jokey about a matter that brought financial ruin to many mums and dads, and even suicide to at least one person, and which helped bring on the GFC. Who stands for l'homme moyen sensuel? who stands for me in this? I had the same objection to 'Serious Money' some years ago; it was no coincidence that it was guys from the world of money who flocked to that play, though I agree that few of them will be flocking to see 'Enron'.

    The production: in every way - design, direction, lighting - pretty abysmal. I see no evidence of either director or artistic director in Louise Fischer.

    Did you really have a good night in the theatre?

    And then, the following night, 'Phèdre' opened: and that was a professional production ... not.

    1. Hi Anon,

      I don't think I did lower my standards because it was a smaller company- if you read my reviews of 'Trapped in Mykonos' or 'Something Natural' etc, both smaller groups, you'll see I'll bite if I need to do it.

      But I really did enjoy much of this play. Sure- it was rough around the edges and lacked the polish and shine of the big boys but I came out really thinking about the play and its characters. Honestly, if I'd hated it, you would have known. I've been less that complimentary with what I've seen the New do this year so far. Maybe by the time I'd seen it (after you perhaps), it had picked up its game a bit? Hard to say. All I know is that there was plenty there for me to give it the review I did.

      Have not seen Bell's Phedre though. Was it that bad?