Smoke and mirrors

Enron is a reminder that theatre is peculiarly well-suited to unmasking the subterfuges of the banke

Theatre is a happily apt mode for examining the rise and fall of Enron. Actors are a dissembling bunch by trade, and the smoke and mirrors, legerdemain and suspension of disbelief required to conjure worlds onstage, sit remarkably close to the conning and gulling that Enron carried out to sell an illusion to the world at large. Enron's financial hubris has been well documented: suffice to say that the truly enormous gap between projected image and reality formed the basis of a spectacular $30bn fraud.

So it's with an uncanny sense of the appropriate that we watch Rupert Goold, this year's Olivier award-winning director, pile on the theatrical techniques in Enron, Lucy Prebble's exposé of the affair. And he throws everything at it: dance, cabaret, barbershop, mime, mask, not to mention a digital soundtrack and video projections.

Prebble evinces a flair for the well-placed analogy, making the impenetrable world of business blather entertaining and occasionally hilarious, even to this financial ingenue. Financial controller Andy Fastow's speech on the creation of shadow companies - his beloved "Raptors" - designed to eat Enron's debt, is a miracle of lucidity as he compares these fake companies and their ownership to a series of boxes within boxes, like Russian dolls.

Jeff Skilling, the man who masterminded Enron's shift from utilities company, selling real stuff, to increasingly fraudulent peddler of futures and derivatives, is observed astutely by both playwright and actor, Samuel West. In his own way, Skilling was as much of a frontiersman as the pioneers who rolled their wagons out in the hope of a better life, as he pushed the Texan oil giant towards the virtual and the speculative. West contrives to look at once weaselly and sympathetic, and whilst we never forget that he's a criminal, he's a criminal who can quote Mark Twain. He actually appears to lose weight during the course of the show, as his body is subtly upgraded - better hair, better eyesight - as befits his rise from professorial lackey to CEO. In some ways the cline of Enron's fortunes is mapped in West's hair: from greasy fringe to razor-smart cut to complete disarray.

Tim Piggot-Smith, playing Enron chairman Kenneth Lay, positively skips into his role as Midwestern Republican oil man, cigar-smoking pal to George W. It's a cross between J.R. Ewing and an evangelist preacher that he looks born to play. And the third in this unholy trinity is Tom Goodman-Hill, who plays Fastow with an East Coast nerviness that has him descending to the twitchiness of a 'Nam survivor as he keeps his Raptors at bay in the basement.

Prebble's gift for the analogous is shared by Goold's use of sound and image. Part Weimar satire, part student revue, various skits and cameos are strung along the narrative thread: so Arthur Anderson, Enron's compliant accountancy firm, are portrayed as a ventriloquist act; and it's more brothers Marx than Lehman when the bankers do a turn as conjoined twins. The giant Schwarzenegger is simply one actor on another's shoulders.

Admittedly some of these images are pretty crude - collapse of Twin Towers equals collapse of Enron, for example - but others are richly suggestive. When the Enron logo appears to have been drawn by Skilling's daughter, it also resembles the chalk outline of a dead body. When Skilling lifts his arms in supplication as he watches the deadly tickertape showing the share price plummeting, it looks like he is being crucified by the numbers.

The set's central monolith alternately veils and reveals the rarified upper floors of the Enron enterprise, like the black glass of an expensive office. It also serves as the backdrop to some highly seductive visuals, including archive footage and nostalgic 1990's montages. When competing with such strongly designed electronic media, there is a frailty to the actual humans on stage that the actors do well to minimize.

As an ensemble they move competently, but perhaps not exquisitely: some of the mime moments are uncertain, some of the transitions a little forced. In some ways, though, I would have liked this very roughness and fragility explicitly acknowledged. If theatre is the perfect metaphor for the fantasy hawked by the Enron cabal, then it would have been fitting to see the strain and sweat behind the illusion, the marionettes' strings, the whole mechanics of the show exposed.

That said, the show is an ingenious, clever, humane, energetic reminder - if we needed one - that things are not necessarily what they seem in financial affairs. Banker beware!

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit