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In London, A New Play Sheds Fresh Light On Enron

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In London, A New Play Sheds Fresh Light On Enron

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In London, A New Play Sheds Fresh Light On Enron

In London, A New Play Sheds Fresh Light On Enron

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120470672/120471237" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A new musical in London has an unusual storyline: The collapse in 2001 of the Houston-based energy company Enron. The play centers on former CEO Jeffrey Skilling and his efforts to make Enron a global corporate titan. It all plays out as a sort of Faust meets Citizen Kane.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Another corporate saga is so dramatic, it's actually become a drama on the London stage. There's a play about Enron. When the energy company collapsed in 2001, its name became a byword for corporate mismanagement. Its CEO Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to a long prison term, although he's appealing his sentence to the Supreme Court. Now the play looks at Enron in a new light as a precursor to last year's financial crisis.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports, it's one of several shows in London about the global recession.

ROB GIFFORD: Compared to sex and death, business hasn't really had much of a play as a topic for popular drama. But just like London buses, you wait ages for one drama on the subject, then three come along at the same time. The most critically acclaimed is simply called �Enron� at the Royal Court Theatre. It's written by 28-year-old Lucy Prebble and it charts in exhilarating fashion the whole rollercoaster ride of the Texas energy company.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of play, �Enron�)

Unidentified Woman: The �90s, it's a time of little conflict internationally, the fastest growing economy there has ever been. It feels genuinely like the most exciting time to be doing business in the history of the world.

(Soundbite of music)

GIFFORD: The play centers around the former CEO Jeffrey Skilling and his efforts to make Enron a global corporate titan. It all plays out as a sort of Faust meets Citizen Kane.

(Soundbite of play, �Enron�)

Unidentified Man #1: Enron online will change the market. It is real simple. If you want to do business, you would push the button. That's our vision, and we're trying to change the world.

(Soundbite of music)

GIFFORD: Skilling and Lay and Chief Financial Officer Andy Fastow appear bathed in the projected glow of the stock ticker of the New York Stock Exchange. The play was originally going to be a musical and it pulses with rhythm and dance, not to mention lightsabers and Texan line dancing exploding at the audience like the irrational exuberance of the �90s boom itself. The veteran drama critic of the Guardian newspaper Michael Billington was impressed.

Mr. MICHAEL BILLINGTON (Drama Critic, The Guardian): I think it works triumphantly, actually, because I think it does the two things you want theater to do, it's entertaining and at the same time highly informative. I think what Lucy Prebble has done is to show that business, like show business actually is often based on illusion and vanity and imagination.

GIFFORD: Across town at the National Theatre is the opposite of the razzle dazzle of Enron, �The Power of Yes,� by one of Britain's foremost playwrights David Hare. While Enron was four years in the writing, �The Power of Yes� was conceived, written and performed in six months. And onstage an actor playing the author goes around asking bankers, journalists and academics what caused the crash.

(Soundbite of play, �The Power of Yes�)

Unidentified Man #2: Nobody understood how risky the whole system had become. Now, that's the answer to the queen's question.

Unidentified Man #3: The queen?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, the queen went to the London School of Economics.

Unidentified Man #3: The queen did?

Unidentified Man #2: And she asked them: Why did nobody see it coming? And the answer is there was a collective failure to see how all the bits of the system fitted together.

GIFFORD: So documentary and undramatic is the play that one newspaper reviewer called it not so much a play as an artfully arranged dramatization of the research that could've led to one. Ouch. Either way, both plays have completely sold out and yet another drama inspired by the financial crisis is being staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the new year. Michael Billington of The Guardian says, amazingly, overall box office takings in London's West End are up over the last year and despite the recession, he says British theater is still showing it can deliver.

Mr. BILLINGTON: I think British theater's conspicuous for its ability to respond rapidly to current events. At the time of the Iraq invasion, there was a whole batch of plays, some fictional, some documentary about what that meant and why it was so important. Now dramatists are responding, obviously, to the financial crisis.

GIFFORD: Lucy Prebble's eye-popping �Enron� is moving to a bigger theater in the West End in January. The word is it will move to Broadway in the spring and that a movie is in the works.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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