After reaping praise in the West End, Enron is coming to Birmingham. Diane Parkes speaks to writer Lucy Prebble.
It may have got booed on Broadway, but the theatre production capturing the downfall of energy giant Enron won much praise and many awards in London last year.
Now playwright Lucy Prebble is bringing it to Birmingham as she basks in its glory and benefiting as a result of its success.
At first glance it may appear a strange subject for the 29-year-old writer. Until she penned the production, Lucy was best known for her screenplay of the racy television series Secret Diary of a Call Girl which starred Billie Piper. But Lucy saw the potential of the Enron story.
In December 2001 the American energy giant Enron collapsed, owing tens of millions of dollars and becoming what was then the biggest bankruptcy in corporate history.
Behind the headlines lay a story of deceit, greed, incompetence and eventual desperation as those in the know scrabbled to keep the truth a secret.
The company took 15 years to build but just 24 days to unravel, taking with it not only those running the company but thousands of people who worked for it or who had invested in it.
In many ways it was a precursor for the financial meltdown which was to follow and financial analysts and journalists spent months trawling through the remains.
“I think it is actually the complexity of the story which fascinated me,” Lucy says. “There is a tendency to wrap these financial stories up in language which ordinary people just don’t understand. It infuriates me as I am sure it is done deliberately.
“We always think we must be stupid not to understand it but once you cut through the world of corporate finance and reach the truth it isn’t actually that complicated. I was talking to one person who worked for another finance company and he told me that it is all part of a game – the language, the complexity. Once you understand that then you can begin to pull it all apart.”
But she did have one worry.
“It was not really understanding it that made me want to research it and understand it. Once I had done that then I saw the possibility of sharing that story with other people.”
At the heart of the Enron financial scandal lay three executives – chairman Kenneth Lay, chief executive officer Jeffrey Skilling and chief financial officer Andrew Fastow.
Lucy chose to concentrate on these characters and their role in the collapse. In doing so she succeeded in explaining complex financial machinations quite simply – and in offering a human face to the story.
“I started writing it in 2006,” recalls Lucy.
“I wanted to write something about the world of corporate finance and the collapse of a company which was so massive. It is fascinating, and also challenging, when you get into it.
“It was relatively easy to find the material on Enron as there was a lot of journalism covering it. That was very useful. Then it was talking to people who work in that industry and asking them to explain things. Once people know you are interested they are quite happy to talk about it.”
But dealing with a real life story has its risks.
“My main concern was to make sure I wasn’t sued,” Lucy says.
“Lay is dead but Skilling and Fastow are still alive. But I got it checked and checked again by legal people. And legally it is very fair to the people who are being represented. I am trying to get the audience to empathise with the characters.”
Working with director Rupert Goold, Lucy’s Enron combines drama, comedy, song, music, film and dance. The show premiered in Chichester in 2009 before opening at the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s West End in January.
After winning a host of awards, the show is about to start an autumn tour, taking in Birmingham Repertory Theatre in September.
Lucy admits that once she started writing the creative juices just kept coming.
“Enron is bursting with ideas,” she laughs. “It was conceived as a musical originally and then I kept thinking of other things which people would not expect. When people know the play is about Enron they may have certain expectations so it was all about bringing everything to it to confound those expectations.
“The company was known for its showiness, its luxurious attitude and for its extravagant marketing and I wanted to reflect that. In some ways it is a bit Cirque du Soleil in parts and it is full of excesses. I wanted it to be overly creative. Just as the company was excessive, I wanted this show to express that. “I really wanted it to be performed in a theatre rather than it being a television show because the audience reaction is so important. When I was working on it I was for ever thinking ‘this is crazy but it just might work.’
“I realise that not everyone who sees it will even remember the Enron story but there are so many contemporary references in it. There are touches of Star Wars and Jurassic Park – I loved the idea of all these characters dancing with light sabres.
“And there are plenty of pieces of film and music from that time. I chose the excerpts of film because they all summed up that time for me. Images like Bill Clinton are illustrative of the period and so many people know them.
“You only have to see Bill Clinton saying ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ to remember that whole story.”
Despite the fact the show is looking at the downfall of an empire, Lucy says she is not aiming to preach.
“I don’t think it is really a moral tale,” she says. “I am not trying to take a moralistic viewpoint on it. In many ways we are focusing on the amorality of it. I don’t think the characters are actually bad people. But sometimes good people do bad things. They are just over-reachers.
“It is very unusual for a play to be populated by villains. But there is also a degree of complicity from the audience. I didn’t want to include a whistle blower because I didn’t want anyone to have a get-out clause. All of the audience know what is happening and they see it and become complicit.”
Lucy admits that she couldn’t gauge how audiences would respond to Enron.
“I was surprised by its success but I think that is because of its originality. And the fact there is a real relevance to it. With everything that happened afterwards people have become very interested in the world of corporate finance. It is unusual for this kind of subject matter to be tackled in the theatre.
“I have met so many people who worked for Enron or who are financial analysts so there are lots of interesting conversations in the bar after performances,” she says.
“But I would really like to meet the characters themselves – people like Skilling and Fastow. That would be fascinating.”
And its success has meant a good many opportunities for Lucy.
Her first drama, The Sugar Syndrome, which premiered in 2003, focused on the sex lives of young women and won her the 2004 Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright.
But she was determined not to be pigeonholed as a ‘women’s writer’.
And now she feels ready to tackle a whole range of subject matter.
“Professionally the success of Enron means I am being offered the type of writing which I wouldn’t have been offered before,” she says.
“I think beforehand people saw me as someone who could write women’s stories – not the kind of person who would be writing about international finance. They wouldn’t have expected me to be writing about white middle class males.”
For her next foray into drama, Lucy is looking to head off in another direction entirely.
“I think I am tired of being relevant and would like to do something romantic,” she says.
“I have the idea of doing something around the concept of an illusionist.
‘‘I am interested in the golden age of magic and how people could be deceived by illusion. Something very different.”
In the mean time she is preparing for the tour of Enron.
“I do tend to stay quite involved with what I write,” she says.
“I do make changes after it is first performed but there is also a point at which you need to let it go.
‘‘But I will definitely go to see it in some of the venues. I am interested in how some of the regional audiences will respond to it.”
* Enron by Lucy Prebble is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from September 22-25. For tickets call 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk