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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Why we'll all have to stomach the high-tech future of food

Lab-grown meat and veg may be unappetising, but our planet's survial may depend on it.

Imagine: you’re out shopping with a friend and you decide to stop and get some lunch. Just off the high street, you spot a restaurant advertising a burger deal and decide to go in. On the menu, however, you see something strange: all the items are apparently made with “future food”. Some sort of hipster gimmick?

You order your burger, and the waitress brings it over. It looks like all the other burgers you’ve eaten in your life, but as the waitress talks you through your meal, you realise that this restaurant is unusual.

The meat, she tells you, is made from lab-grown beef. The vegetables that sit on top of it have been produced in a temperature-controlled lab, under LED lights. “Five times faster than outdoors!” your waitress beams. Oh, and the chips are made from irradiated potatoes – but that’s nothing new: it’s been legal to sell irradiated food in the UK since 2009. “It stops the potatoes sprouting,” she explains.

If suddenly you feel like you don’t fancy the burger much, you’re not alone. Even the most forward-thinking consumer can find that the idea of lab-produced meals sticks in the throat – even if we understand, logically, that food technology can be a good thing.

According to a recent government study, only half of us believe we “will have to make more use of technology in food production”.

The process of growing meat provokes particularly strong reactions. It involves taking a small quantity of muscle cells from a living animal, which are then cultured in a mixture designed to support their growth. Done right, one muscle cell can turn into one trillion strands of muscle tissue.

Yet we may not have time to be squeamish. Studies suggest that a high proportion of greenhouse gases – anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on the research – is produced by the meat industry.

“This is really something that needs to be done in the next decade,” Shaked Regev, of the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF), tells me. “This is a critical point for humanity.” The MAF is a start-up developing what it calls “clean meat”. Regev, the foundation’s director, became involved in this area of research partly because he believes we urgently need to create new food technologies.

“This and other green initiatives are imperative. Some people say it’s for our grandkids – I say: I’m 27, and I’m going to see significant damage from climate change in my lifetime.”

Researchers in the field are confident that the public can overcome its distaste for lab-grown meat. “It will eventually be cheaper than the kind of chicken meat currently for sale, and consumers will flock to it,” says Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy working on food ethics at North Carolina State University. “They flocked to milk made with bovine growth hormone [bGH], even though they reported being opposed to genetically modified foods, once they saw that the bGH milk was cheaper,” he says.

Yet even if people are happy to try new food technologies, does the best solution to the problems lie in our food culture? Studies show that fewer of us are cooking at home than ever before; young people in particular are becoming less familiar with the range of ingredients and where they come from. A 2012 poll by the charity Linking Environment and Farming found that 33 per cent of 16-to-23-year-olds were unable to identify hens as the source of eggs.

Comstock rejects the argument that developing food technologies will further obscure the origins of our food. “We are already as alienated as we can be from the sources of our food,” he says. “Most of us have no idea about the conditions in which birds are grown and slaughtered.”

For Regev, young people are less of a problem and could even be a big part of the solution. Because their food habits are less entrenched, he says, young people will be more willing to try something new. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to accept this new technology, or new technologies in general.”

He reminds me, “We really don’t have time for a hundred-year social progress movement.” Better get biting that burger, then.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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