A play chronicling the collapse of Enron is just one in a number of artistic ventures to take aim at capitalism
The corporate stage
"Capitalism exposed as con-trick and illusion," said The Guardian. "A telling harbinger of the more recent global boom and bust," said The Evening Standard. "Phenomenal," added The Daily Telegraph. When the play Enron opened at the Royal Court in London last week, the critics were rapturous. Which was surprising, given that it's a play about complex financial skulduggery leading to the collapse of a multinational corporation.
"It's a cracking good story," says Helen Hawkins, editor of the Culture section of The Sunday Times, who also saw the play. "The playwright and director have come up with a perfect way to tell this outrageous story, which is to treat it as part morality tale and part circus." With the aid of song and dance, the playwright Lucy Prebble explains how Enron's president, Jeffrey Skilling, destroyed the company he worked for by trading in energy as well as supplying it. Although Enron's collapse occurred in 2001, the play inhabits the same world of high finance that has imploded in the past 18 months, where companies have generated and lost vast wealth trading in something as vague as repackaged risk.
"It's a world most people now despise, but find oddly fascinating," says Hawkins. Alongside the critics, audiences have reacted favourably to Enron, says Hawkins. The play has sold out at the Royal Court and starts a West End run next year. In April, it will open on Broadway. Hawkins says she can easily imagine the play packing them in in the US. "It has all the pizzazz American audiences look for," she says.
Enron marks the opening shot in a barrage of documentaries, movies and plays that are starting to wake up to the economic meltdown of the past two years. George Clooney stars in Up in the Air, in which he plays a management consultant who, having spent his career firing people, is given the sack. The movie, out in November, has already been tipped for Oscars. American Casino juxtaposes Wall Street's talking heads with images of poor families thrown out of their foreclosed homes in a documentary that The New York Times called a "meticulously structured" critique of the subprime mortgage scandal. The director Oliver Stone is currently working with Michael Douglas on a follow-up to Wall Street, his satire about 1980s greed.
"It may be a little too soon for most branches of the arts to tackle the recession wholesale," says Hawkins. "Enron has been on the theatre company Headlong's to-do list for three years now, which is why it seems timely." "It takes so long to get films into production that we probably won't see the credit crunch reflected in the movies for a while yet," says Damon Wise, contributing editor at Empire magazine. "To put things into perspective, a lot of Hollywood films this year still carry the anti-French bias from the Iraq war, hence the trashing of Paris in the otherwise apolitical GI Joe. But ideas of poverty have been creeping in," he says.
Adventureland, a teen comedy set in the 1980s, is about a child forced to work for the summer because his middle-class father has been downsized, while the horror movie Drag Me to Hell has a slyly topical subtext about a bank worker who will do anything for a promotion, including turf an old woman out on to the street. Pixar's Up has a loose theme of uncaring capitalism too, says Wise. But if you are expecting the Hollywood studios to make films dedicated to the recession, think again, says the US editor of Screen International Mike Goodridge.
"It's a very reactionary time for Hollywood right now," says Goodridge. "Escapism - that is the way it is going to go in Hollywood in the next few years." "Following the commercial failure of virtually every film about - or in some way relating to - the Iraq war, studios will be very careful how they feed the financial meltdown into their plot lines," agrees The Guardian's UK box-office analyst Charles Gant.
It may be up to independent and European cinema to tackle the recession head on, says Goodridge. But artists should take care not to oversimplify the issues. The great thing about Enron, says Hawkins, is that while it criticises global capitalism it doesn't offer any easy answers. "Its moral is pleasingly even-handed," she says. "We have created a world fuelled by profit and this is what happens when there are no formal checks on what clever, inventive people can do in achieving that. You come to understand that Enron chairman Ken Lay and the company were only doing what their culture seemed to be telling them to do. They just did it in spades."
Not all recession-inspired work has been so clear-eyed as Enron. The opening sequence of Michael Moore's new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, shows footage of bank robberies, freeze-framing on a gunman pausing to kiss a wad of stolen notes. It is a typically uncompromising image from a director famous for prickly left-wing views, as well as an undeniable knack for tapping into the American psyche with top-grossing documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine and Sicko.
Towards the end of Moore's movie he wanders into the offices of the Wall Street financiers Goldman Sachs, where he tells workers: "We're here to get the money back for the American people." Moore's documentary, which UAE audiences can catch at the Middle East International Film Festival, was funded by the Weinstein brothers, whose company was in turn funded by a billion-dollar investment raised by - Goldman Sachs.
The writer Ira Stoll pointed this fact out on his website The Future of Capitalism. If Moore wants to get the American people's money back, he wrote, "maybe he should look in his own pockets".