Staging the crisis

At the height of the crisis, in November 2008, the Queen asked a room of academics at the London School of Economics what could be the key question of the last few years: “Why did nobody see this coming?”

It is a question seized on by David Hare in his new play, The Power of Yes, but which is arguably better answered by Lucy Prebble (a Londoner in her 20s) in her play Enron, which debuted in London’s West End last night, and which ostensibly has nothing to do with the credit crisis and its aftermath.

Enron‘s West End debut, especially for those who, like me, were seeing the play for the first time, was a triumph. The acting was compelling and believable, especially from Sam West, who as Jeff Skilling managed to make a seamless transition from maths nerd to master of the universe. This was coupled with the kind of spectacular pyrotechnics that audiences expect from a Rupert Goold production, including a stunning representation of 9/11 (an event not exactly easy to re-create within the confines of a West End stage). Nor were the special effects out of place: Prebble explained recently in the FT that part of the point of the elaborate staging was to capture something of the out-of-control nature of Enron itself.

But the real star was the writing. Some of it seemed too prescient to have been written before the current crisis, and Prebble says in the FT piece that she re-wrote parts for the West End. But in one scene, which must have been there from the play’s inception, she captures perfectly how Enron got into the position it did and why no one saw it coming, and it is a scene that translates perfectly for the current crisis.

In that scene, Jeff Skilling and his CFO, Andy Fastow, present Fastow’s plans to create off-balance sheet vehicles in which to hide debts, to the three parties who might stop them: the accountants, the lawyers and the board. After each group has tried to pass the buck to another, there is an awkward moment at which someone asks “Okay?” Another barks the question back: “Okay?” And another “Okay?” And slowly, but surely, the questions sound less and less interrogative until everyone in the room is shouting “Okay!”

The idea behind the scene is that when people don’t understand what’s going on, they will rely on those they imagine are the smartest guys in the room without asking too many other questions. This is as true for the off-balance sheet vehicles that helped bring down Lehman Brothers (which is represented by bumbling conjoined twins in Prebble’s play: surely one of the parts written in later) as those that brought down Enron. It is also the idea behind the title and much of the action in Hare’s play.

Given that the theme is universal enough for it to be as true at the beginning of last decade as at the end, it is reasonable to assume it will always be thus. This is why strict regulation is the only way to ensure such a crisis doesn’t happen again. In a world where very few understand the complexity of the financial instruments being created, we must be able to rely on those who put themselves up as specialist watchdogs to make sure they are not going to bring down the system as a whole.

The scene also shows just how few people took the decisions that resulted in so many losing their life savings, and how small and personal many of the dramas were that led up to the world’s biggest corporate scandal. This is why Prebble’s drama gets at the truth so much better than Hare’s more clunking staged-documentary format. And why, eventually, someone will have to write the definitive stage version of this crisis as told through the story of Lehman. If no one else is forthcoming, I know of a 20-something London-based playwright who would do a stunning job.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.