Theatre

Art imitating life imitating art

The resonances may be serendipitous, but two Theatre Festival plays examining corruption, greed, money and power mirror perfectly our current financial crisis, writes SARA KEATING 

To read more about Enron follow this link ENRON

ANYONE LOOKING for an analysis of the contemporary financial crisis might care to look at the programme of this year’s Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, where a visiting production from London’s Headlong Theatre and a new production by the Abbey Theatre offer a strikingly pertinent anatomy of global economic woe. Lucy Prebble’s spectacular Enron charts the rise and fall of one of the largest multinational corporations on the cusp of the 21st century, while Frank McGuinness’ new version of Ibsen’s classic John Gabriel Borkman examines the fall from grace of a wealthy banker who speculates a little too freely with his clients’ deposits. Neither play speaks directly to Ireland; however both are strikingly current with the daily headlines of corruption and incompetence in our bankrupt country.

Lucy Prebble regards the contemporary resonance of her second play, Enron , which tells the story of how corporate mismanagement at Enron cost some 20,000 people their jobs and many their life savings, as entirely accidental. “It didn’t feel particularly relevant at first when I originally thought of writing the play in 2005,” she says. “No-one could have predicted what would happen with the economy, so I suppose the scary thing about how it resonated with recent events was the feeling that, gosh, what happened at Enron could easily – and did – happen again.” (In one of the funniest moments in the play, the Lehmann brothers make a cameo appearance, reimagined as a pair of Siamese twins.) But Prebble wasn’t necessarily trying to be timely.

“Principally,” she explains, “my passion for writing something about the Enron scandal was because I felt there was so little on stage about the world of business, even though we spend most of our lives, if not working for large companies, then living in a world that is essentially controlled by them. I mean, even in the theatre, we are increasingly dependent on corporate sponsorship.”

Prebble saw dramatic potential in the story, she continues, “because the world of business is essentially a theatrical one. When it came to what was happening within the company at Enron, this was a world where the share price had become completely divorced from its underlying logistical operations; basically, where the illusion was more important than reality. In theatre, we create something out of nothing, and essentially that was what they did. The theatre involves what we call the suspension of disbelief and that is how the market reacted.”

Prebble’s play certainly succeeds in finding show business within the grey-suited business world. For research, she visited the stock market and was amazed by the rhythms and rituals of the trade, where hand gestures and signals seemed like an elaborate dance or a game of charades, and Rupert Goold’s high-octane production exploits this theatricality by blending music, choreography and multimedia devices to spectacular effect.

However, underlying all the exuberant imagery that Prebble and Goold have crafted from seemingly bland business material is a world of great emotional power, one which strives for the epic quality of Shakespearean tragedy. As Prebble’s fictional version of chief executive Jeffrey Skilling says: “There’s greed, there’s fear, joy, faith . . . hope . . . and the greatest of these . . . money”; the highest stakes of them all.

FOR FRANK MCGUINNESS, the contemporary resonance of his new version of John Gabriel Borkman , which opens at the Abbey theatre on Wednesday, was also serendipitous. McGuinness had already written versions of eight other Ibsen dramas and John Gabriel Borkman, Ibsen’s last play, was always going to be the final instalment of his long-term exploration of the 19th century playwright’s work.

In its essence, John Gabriel Borkman is a typical Ibsen family drama, anatomising the relationship between a corrupt and convicted banker, the two women who compete for his love and attention, and the son he has alienated by his crimes. However, the character of Borkman had its own sensational origins. It was inspired by a real news story that Ibsen heard about in the late 1850s, where a senior bank clerk in Christiana was found guilty of fraud and was committed to prison with hard labour for four years.

McGuinness says that it was “entirely fortuitous that events in the play correspond to events in the current economy, because I would never go to a play just to be topical.” What he was attracted to, he explains, was the “extraordinarily complex and strange poet figure” of Borkman himself. As McGuinness sees it, Borkman is a tragic figure, destroyed by his own ambition because, as much as “he enjoyed the trappings of wealth, the pursuit of power”, he is fuelled by a greater quest. “He is a miner’s son,” as McGuinness elaborates, “and he has this depth of vision where he is trying to tap down what is precious. His material ambition was fuelled by what he wanted to do for his country; how he wanted to explore and exploit the potential of his country. It is breathtaking in the accuracy with which that idea resonates about the Irish economy, but I had no intention of that.”

Indeed, McGuinness believes that it is important to let “correspondences between classic work and modern life” be interpreted by the audience rather than portrayed by the writer. The 19th century setting, then, is crucial both to McGuinness’s version of the play and to James MacDonald’s production at the Abbey. Ultimately, McGuinness explains, Ibsen “knows better than I do, and the costumes, the setting; this is what Ibsen wants us to see, so if you relocate it or update it just doesn’t work”. It is the “magnificent precision of Ibsen’s writing”, McGuinness concludes, that gives us access to the more universal themes at the heart of John Gabriel Borkman and, indeed, Enron . These are themes of greed, hope, fear, desire, longing, and, yes, money, which still have the power to move audiences today; themes that will outlive this recession and the next.

Sourced from Irish Times

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