Talking Movies

November 2, 2010

Enron

Velociraptors in the basement, sex in the boardroom, trading shares to techno music, and wielding light-sabres in the dark; just another day at the office in Lucy Prebble’s demented satire Enron.

Director Rupert Goold picked up his second Olivier award this year for his energetic interpretation of her script which rambunctiously charts the rise and fall of Enron under the stewardship of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. An impressive trading exchange dominates the stage, which runs Enron’s share price across its screen, and onto which TV footage from the era, including Alan Greenspan’s ‘irrational exuberance’ speech, is projected. Much like The Silver Tassie, which it succeeded in the Gaiety, Enron is a play with music rather than a musical. Composer/lyricist Adam Cork only writes three genuine musical numbers, including a jaunty 1920s style routine complete with cane-twirling by cheerleading financial analysts (“He’s our man/If Jeff can’t do it, no one can!”), and a show-stopping hymn to the market when Skilling’s dream of an in-house trading floor becomes a reality with chanted verses of price movements to juddering techno yielding to ambient backed choruses of reverence by the traders for Gold or Aluminium or whatever commodity is going up. Elsewhere Cork’s sound design is high-octane dance music and Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ for a slow-motion physical theatre depiction of Skilling’s lethal team-building automotive weekends.

Prebble’s script develops four characters in detail and surrounds them with a circus of caricatures, the most amusing of which include the easily persuaded conjoined twins the Lehman Brothers and the equivocating auditors Arthur Andersen, one man and his truth-telling puppet. Sara Stewart (Batman Begins’ Martha Wayne) is Claudia Roe, the only executive who questions Skilling’s wisdom. Her insistence on building a power plant in India is continuously derided as passé, physically making electricity instead of just trading it, but in the end the plant is the only tangible asset remaining. Clive Francis is wonderfully despicable as Ken Lay, whose avuncular folksiness is only maintained by not asking questions he knows have uncomfortable answers. Paul Chahidi is magnificent as financial wunderkind Andy Fastow whose hero-worship of Skilling extends as far as naming his son Jeffrey. Fastow sees the smartest guy in the room succeeding and to hell with the social niceties he can’t master, but Skilling turns out not to be that clever as (to the bitter end) he cannot see that other people can’t and won’t ‘catch-up’ to his schemes. Corey Johnson (Hellboy’s retiring partner) deserves high praise for making his arrogant protagonist charismatic enough to be sympathetic.

Skilling’s new accounting system logs future revenue as present revenue, but present expenses are actually present, which quickly leaves him in debt. Fastow explains to Skilling with the help of a laser-pen that if his cavernous basement office is the debt that needs to be hidden, selling it to ‘independent’ entities which only need 3% of non-Enron stock to be independent, Fastow can use a tiny amount of Enron stock to create almost infinite layers of shadow entities he calls ‘raptors’ so that “this red dot fills the whole room”. Fastow later finds two hatched eggs, nervously asking “Is there anyone down here?” a velociraptor appears, “Clever girls”, and a blackout leaves only the raptor’s red eye visible – a precursor of the madness of the second act. Lay’s politicking with Dubya destroys energy regulation and a cash-strapped Skilling sends in his traders to profiteer from creating rolling blackouts in California. A darkened stage is lit up by choreographed traders wielding light-sabres as Skilling barks orders before the light-sabres power-off on Skilling’s jibe: “You want to know the difference between California and the Titanic? When the Titanic went down it still had lights on”. But this tactic destroys Enron’s reputation and share-price precipitating the catastrophic end.

An incarcerated Skilling defiantly addresses the audience, his peroration is disturbingly thought-provoking; not just progress but also love and parenting depend on irrational exuberance -“The best things I did in my life I did in a bubble. When there was that atmosphere of total hope, and trust…and stupidity”.

4.5/5

October 23, 2010

John Gabriel Borkman

Alan Rickman stars as the eponymous disgraced banker in Ibsen’s 1896 play that resonates unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland.

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An icy atmosphere is established from the first sight of Tom Pye’s set, a drawing-room with two walls bordered on two sides by snow-drifts that the flowing dresses of the actresses drag onto the drawing room floor. I’m not sure what Henrik Ibsen the high-priest of naturalist theatre would have made of this, but it visually conveys the frozen emotions and lives of the central characters, and allows for a spectacular set-change in the first act as one set of walls drops down from above while the extant walls head upwards. In this bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) listens to the endless pacing upstairs of her detested husband John Gabriel Borkman. Her brooding is interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of another nemesis, her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan), who has come to win back the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea), who she raised after the scandal of Borkman’s criminal trial and subsequent bankruptcy and imprisonment.

For the most part this is a three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Tony and Olivier winner Duncan is icily commanding as the driven Ella who forces the Borkmans out of their stasis. Shaw is occasionally histrionic but she makes the alternating rage and self-pity of her character utterly convincing. Rickman is wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which are funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” In support Talking Movies favourite Rea has a surprisingly minor part as Erhart, whose infatuation with Cathy Belton’s older Mrs Wilton threatens his role as pawn in the mind-games of the central trio, while John Kavanagh is sensational as Vilhelm Fordal, Borkman’s only remaining friend. Fordal is so optimistic as to be masochistic. He sees the best in everything and has forgiven Borkman for ruining him, just as he continues writing a truly diabolical play, and Kavanagh makes him both a tragic and a comedic figure – mirroring Borkman’s own delusions that he will be asked to return to banking.

Normally I’m the first to complain about Irish playwrights of a certain age who insist on mediating between Russian, Greek, and Norwegian classics and Irish theatre-goers but Frank McGuinness’ new version doesn’t insert Hibernicisms, instead he brings out the blackly comic undertones of Ibsen’s script while the contemporary resonances speak for themselves. Indeed the banker as tragic hero synchs well with Enron’s capitalist as irrationally exuberant pioneer of new ideas. Rickman has the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlines how his schemes for shipping and mining would have made Norway rich, how only he had the vision necessary to pursue such schemes, and how he was within 8 days of completing his plans when his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinces himself that he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless. The ambitious madness of speculation allows him without guilt to proclaim “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial.

Director James MacDonald, acclaimed for his work at the Royal Court Theatre, helms a satisfying mix of melodrama and black comedy culminating in a wonderful catharsis in an impressively staged snowstorm. This is essential theatre.

5/5

John Gabriel Borkman continues its run at the Abbey until November 20th.

August 17, 2010

Dublin Theatre Festival: 12 Plays

Boston Marriage 29th Sept – 3rd Oct Gate

It’s from 1999 and is an all female cast so I wouldn’t have thought this was vintage David Mamet but he did write and direct his satirical film State & Main the year before and apparently this is a rather good scathing Victorian era drawing room black comedy about lesbian couples in fin de siecle Boston.

Phaedra  30th Sept – 10th Oct Project

Rough Magic use music interpolated from an operatic adaptation of Racine’s version of the Euripides tragedy, and indeed perform it live to supplement a new polish on the script that apparently adds some contemporary resonances to the implosion of the type of dysfunctional family only found in Greek plays.

T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. 1st Oct – 4th Oct Belvedere

The first of three Polish plays sees a stranger seduce everyone in a rich household in a wordless version of a Pasolini film that also has similarities to Something for Everyone or About Adam depending on your generosity.

The Silver Tassie 5th Oct – 10th Oct Gaiety

Druid doing Sean O’Casey in the Gaiety should be an obvious flagship show but my bad experience of Long Day’s Journey into Night in 2007 gives me pause. O’Casey’s move into experimental theatre saw him break with the Abbey as he used symbolism, dance, and music to depict the explosion of WWI into the lives of a Dublin football team who enlist so this should be very good. But…

Celebration 5th Oct – 10th Oct Gate

A very late and allegedly not very good one act play by Harold Pinter about a vicious and crude dinner party in a London restaurant. An odd choice for the festival but perhaps the Gate can extract some black comedy from its brevity.

John Gabriel Borkman 6th Oct – 16th Oct Abbey

Another odd choice, as this is by far the least known of Ibsen’s major works. But it does star ALAN RICKMAN, (a fact inexplicably buried deep within the press release), Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan. This is in a new version by Frank McGuinness (a fact which will be returned to in a future blog piece) which brings out the black comedy of Ibsen’s drama.

Factory 2 9th Oct – 10th Oct Belvedere

The traditional play which you go to not so much for its merits but so you can boast that you managed to endure its marathon running time is this re-imagining of life at Warhol’s chaotic NYC art Factory in the 1960s as, interspersed with Warhol’s own endless films, it’s a whopping 7 1/2 hours long.

Watt 7th Oct – 17th Oct Gate

This is on at some very odd late hours but that probably only adds to the effect. It’s pricey for a one-hour one-man show but Barry McGovern is a noted Beckett exponent who will bring out the black comedy of Beckett’s novel and its tour de force of linguistic tricks.

Una Santa Oscura 8th Oct – 10th Oct Smock Alley

A hit at the fringe last year this mixture of video installation about a girl living in a city at night and specially written live music is performed by skilled violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan. Blink and you’ll miss its short run.

ENRON 12th Oct – 16th Oct Gaiety

A West End musical about the fall of Enron that has an Olivier Award for best director but flopped on Broadway after the NY Times disliked it. It’s definitely high-energy and smart in explaining things over its two and a half hours and it certainly does appear to be dazzling – with light-saber fights in the dark and an accountant with a team of pet velociraptors among the highlights.

Endgame 13th Oct – 17th Oct Gate

Owen Roe apparently made the fabled role of Faith Healer Frank Hardy his own at the Gate earlier this year so he should make an excellent Hamm with support from old double-act Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan in the dustbins. Beckett’s apocalyptic black comedy will probably return with Michael Gambon soon but this is a good chance to see it with Irish stage actors of long standing.

The Danton Case 13th Oct – 16th Oct Belvedere

The final Polish play is the pick of the bunch. Bawdy anachronistic fun, as a fourth wall breaching version of the French revolution and subsequent terror, performed to pounding punk music, plays out that is really about the fall of Communism and the rise of crony capitalism. Take that Sofia Coppola.

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