Enron, The Maids, Baltamire

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ENRON at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, THE MAIDS at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and BALTAMIRE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 11.11.10.
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Enron   4 stars ****
The Maids   2 stars **
Baltamire   3 stars ***

SOMETIME AFTER the great financial crash of 2008, one of the London newspapers published a graphic image of the financial world in which we had been living, and to a large extent still live.  It looked like a giant inverted pyramid, balanced on a tiny point.   Right at the bottom were the real assets on which the world’s wealth is based; then on top came layer upon widening layer of debt and/or credit, financial instruments and derivatives, all based on this small foundation, but in the end, multiplying its worth by a factor of billions.

Lucy Prebble’s play Enron – first seen in London last year, and now on tour in Edinburgh –  is about life as it was lived on the upper and outer edges of that pyramid, in a financial hyperspace so unreal that the people who breathed its air began to feel like gods.  Prebble’s subject is the collapse, in December 2001, of the huge Houston-based energy trading company Enron, at that time the largest corporate bankruptcy in history; but the story prefigures with a horrible precision the crisis that shook the entire global financial system seven years later, as the accounting scams invented by Enron in its heyday spread across the financial world.

The central figure in Prebble’s play is Jeffrey Skilling, the high-powered financial inventor who presided over  Enron’s epic crash; in Corey Johnson’s powerful performance, he is a fascinating character, one of those charismatic evil-doers who often dominate conventional plays.  It’s perhaps to Prebble’s credit, though, that her play, in Rupert Goold’s production, is less a personal drama than a glitzed-up, hi-tech version of an old-fashioned living newspaper show, retelling the history of the Enron collapse in brief, fantastical scenes – with song and dance sequences –  that portray the Enron board as three blind mice, the accountants as a bunch of ventriloquists’ dummies, and the strange series of subsidiary companies created by Enron to conceal their debt as a bunch of raptor dinosaurs living in the sewers beneath the building.

All of which makes it easy to understand why this play was a hit in London, and sank with little trace in New York; it’s a story of 21st century American capitalism filtered through a British and European tradition of agitprop theatre, surreal, graphic, and sometimes cartoonish.  How well it works, in the case of Enron, is debatable.  In a depressing reflection of current politics, the show presents no real moral and political alternative to Skilling’s infantile combination of junk Darwinism and soaring personal arrogance; the audience is still chuckling in complicity with his apparent “cleverness” at the end of the show.

For all its confusions, though, Enron is an interesting piece of theatre, that raises all the right questions about the shifting boundary between a proper, expansive faith in the future, the mere printing of money that has no real value, and the failure of the regulating institutions that should understand the difference.  And at least Skilling is now in jail; while his counterparts on this side of the Atlantic still live free, on annual pensions that insult every one of us, every day of our hard-working lives.

Jean Genet’s famous masterpiece The Maids, first seen in Paris in 1947, is a domestic miniature by comparison; but at its heart, it is a much tougher piece of writing about class politics, and the excesses of wealth.  In the apartment of Madame, a wealthy youngish woman with a wardrobes full of clothes, her two maidservants – sisters Claire and Solange – are taking advantage of her absence to dress up in her finery, and act out the unthinking series of domestic arrogances with which she has earned their hatred.  They contemplate murder, utter dark poetic monologues, and eventually turn on one another; the sado-masochism of the class system in which they live seems, in the end, to have corrupted them completely.

Paulline Goldsmith’s production for this year’s Glasgay! festival wraps this terrible tale in so many layers of style that it becomes, at  times, almost impossible to follow.  In this cross-dressed version of the play, all three actors are not only male, but – in the case of the two maids – bald and grizzled.  They deploy a range of bizarre voices, from camp Glasgow street to mock-posh, mangling the words to the point of destruction; and there’s plenty of loud and raffish rock music to distract the audience further.  It’s not a negligible production; it has a dark, despairing camp energy full of rancid disgust.  Its relationship with the play’s language, though, is a mess, as if it cared for Genet’s text only as a pretext for harsh theatrical gestures; and in a play as wordy as this, that is a recipe for tedium, even when the whole event lasts only 75 minutes.

As for Sandy Nelson’s Baltamire, this week at Oran Mor, this is a Scottish rom-com so innocent of serious intent that I’m surprised it has not already been snapped up as a six-part Sunday-night BBC drama.   The story is as cheesy as they come; restless Glasgow air-traffic controller Donald volunteers for a new job in what he thinks is Baltimore, only to find himself exiled to Baltamire, a one-strip island airport in the far Hebrides.

His shopaholic beautician girlfriend – a hilariously realised character, in ten short lines or so – promptly dumps him by voicemail; but romance and true values await, in the shape of lovely island girl Morna, who converts him to the joys of Hebridean life in 48 hours flat.  If the arc of the story is conventional, though, the execution is brilliant, full of hilarious detail, and sharp narrative structure; and something tells me we have not heard the last of Donald and Morna, or of that island, with its rare birds, creative incomers, and supply of best Java coffee, flown in once a week.

Enron at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, The Maids at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and Baltamire at Oran Mor, Glasgow, all until Saturday, 13 November.

ENDS ENDS

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