Two plays, two authors, two theatres, each trying to explain the complex mess we’re in. At the established National Theatre, veteran playwright David Hare with The Power of Yes; at the rebellious Royal Court, young star Lucy Prebble with Enron, directed by theatre’s man of the moment, Rupert Goold. So which best illuminates the crisis, and how?
Enron is certainly the most talked-about of the two, already booked into the West End following its Royal Court run. It has big musical numbers, flashy electronics and a a pack of angry raptors on the prowl. But does this extravagant theatricality disguise a hollow heart? Is the flim-flam there to hide a lack of substance?
Absolutely not. This is thoughtful, and thought-provoking, drama, combining a forensic level of analysis — what went wrong, why did it happen, and what were the character flaws that made it possible — with a rich theatrical imagination. Whether you’re familiar with the Enron story (over-familiar, in my case) or new to the culture and characters involved, Prebble delivers an awesome amount of information without ever giving the impression that she’s showing off her research. All the lead players are here — Ken Lay, Andrew Fastow and, in a quietly terrifying performance, Sam West as Jeffrey Skilling, the nerd who became a bully, and set out to change the world. But as well as dramatising the characters, Prebble dramatises the ideas: the raptors in the basement, seen here as literal dinosaurs, are Fastow’s own term for the complex financial constructs used to hide the company’s losses: constructs that outlived their usefulness, and started to bite back.
For much of its length Enron plays as comedy, albeit of the blackest kind. But there’s no doubt of the tragedy at its core. Most treatments of the story have been one-sided, quick to damn: this is perhaps the first real attempt to dramatise both the brilliance of the company and the exhilaration of its initial success. This was a company rooted in the Texan oil tradition, infused by the spirit of the Western pioneers. Every day brought new invention, breaking ground that regulators couldn’t comprehend; it was not, at the beginning, that Enron was breaking the law, more that it was ahead of it. But success — and the praise that went with it — led to hubris, a fatal sense that everyone else was just too stupid to keep up. And this is where, with real feeling, Prebble explores the personal tragedies of the characters involved: what it was about them that created the company’s triumph, but that also led to its doom. As with any financial disaster, those at the helm blamed “the market” and “events beyond our control”. This play suggests the opposite: that the tragedy of Enron lay not at its edges but its centre, at its flawed, self-dramatising heart.
Also self-dramatising — literally, this time — is David Hare, who puts himself at the centre of his new play at the National, The Power of Yes, which is subtitled A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis. And which is pretty much what we get: a series of reconstructed interviews between Hare himself (played with eerie accuracy by Anthony Calf) and a series of participants and experts (bankers, analysts, journalists) as Hare tries to figure out just what went wrong.
If that sounds a bit dry — well, it is. I’m a huge fan of David Hare. I loved his painful, funny monologue Berlin earlier this year, and I admire his commitment to putting the contemporary world on stage. And there’s a lot that’s good about The Power of Yes, including a spiky, funny performance from Claire Price as a bitchy Financial Times journalist and a chilling final meeting with George Soros, the man — let’s not forget – who almost brought down Britain in 1992. But overall it’s a missed opportunity. This is partly because, unlike Berlin, The Power of Yes reveals very little about Hare himself: his character here is a dogged, witty reporter but little more than that. This is disingenuous: Hare is a well-known public figure, married to an internationally-known designer. What did the crash mean to him, how did it affect his psyche? If you’re going to put yourself at the centre, you have to fill the centre in.
But even more frustrating are the ghosts of Hare plays we might want to see, just poking through. There’s the play about Fred Goodwin — the best segment of the show — or the bonkers Adam Applegarth, former chief of Northern Rock. Or there’s the play about the Queen’s controversial visit to the stock exchange earlier this year, mentioned here almost in passing in a section called The Queen’s Question: “why did no-one see it coming?”, she asked, and no-one was able to offer an answer. Or, indeed, the play about George Soros, global super-villain turned philanthropist and sage. All of these feel like start-points for a classic Hare drama, but none of them is quite delivered in this investigative, intelligent but, in the end, infuriating play.