26 February, 2010

Enron and Artichokes

I have, unsurprisingly, not much of a head for business. When John talks about subprime mortgages, TALF, TARPS and what not, I try hard to pay attention, not to retreat into making silent grocery lists or wondering how to fillet a sea bream.

So when my good friend Darina rang us up to see if we would like to join them at "Enron," I quailed a bit. I know that it's the hottest ticket in town. I even tried, with the best of intentions, to get tickets last autumn when the play was at the Royal Court. Wasn't too devastated when it was sold-out. A theatrical rendition of the collapse of an oil and gas company in Texas?

But I couldn't in good conscience not go, when tickets were being waved in my face. So we said yes, to go last night.

"It's a musical, isn't it?" John asked yesterday afternoon as yet another grey rainstorm swept by the study window. (At least the heat is back on.)

"It most certainly is NOT a musical," I scoffed. "Just because it turned out that the life of Sir Francis Drake could be set to music and dance for 13-year-olds, does not mean that the tale of the downfall of a double-A American corporation is a musical. Certainly not."

It's a musical.

Well, it was intended as such by Lucy Prebbles, its 24-year-old female playwright, but apparently the powers-that-be who funded her unlikely project scaled down the singing bits somewhat. But it's true that at times the office workers break into song and dance, brandishing light sticks, spinning around on their ergonomic office chairs, you name it.

And somehow, it's magnificent.

It helped that John and my friend's husband are longtime inhabitants of the corporate-banking world. It was amusing and sweet to listen to them at the interval, debating the veracity of the stock prices on the theatrical ticker tape. "Intel was DEFINITELY higher in 2000, that's totally wrong..." The things these boys take seriously.

How many things about this production were wonderful. First, the greedy CEO Jeffrey Skilling, with a fatherly heart of gold, who teaches his little girl how long it would take to count to a billion (32 years) by counting out dollar bills, played by the delicious Sam West. West plays him sexy in a ruthless, creepy way, seductively megalomaniac, revelling in the smoke-and-mirrors' machinations of Andrew Fastow, his CFO, played with almost drunken delight by Tom Goodman-Hill. Then there's the Chairman Ken Lay himself, played by a sort of cartoonishly Texany Tim Pigott-Smith. I do think it's a little lazy of British actors to lay on a Southern accent so thickly, because it means that the pressure of a real, believable American accent is off, in favor of cliche. We adored him in 'My Fair Lady,' so I was thrilled to see him again live.

How a 24-year-old British woman became interested enough in Enron to write a play about its downfall eludes me. Further, it's a massive feat to make it a musical comedy! I cannot imagine how Prebbles was able to turn a very basic story of corporate greed and excess into a story of three very intriguing definite personalities (the female executive, Claudia Roe, played by Amanda Drew) who rounds out the four main players was not so interesting to me, being played I thought too broadly as a bitchy, aggressive sexpot).

There are so many delights! The Lehman Brothers, played as suit and tie-sharing Siamese twins! The dinosaur-headed "Raptors" who gobble dollar bills, the little daughter who sits in a pile of regurgitated, shredded corporate paper and asks her daddy how the world works. But best of all to me, with my well-known fear of flying, was Skilling's explanation of how debt-laden corporate structures fall apart. I paraphrase:

"It's not like flying in an airplane. It doesn't matter if you know how the airplane works, and it doesn't matter if you believe it will work. Even if all the passengers in the airplane decided it wasn't going to stay in the air, the airplane stays in the sky. But... if the corporate world decides it doesn't believe in debt structure..."

And a tremendous sound of airplane engines overwhelms the theatre, and a brilliant, abstracted vision of the ruined World Trade Center appears.

I won't spoil the drama for you, but the ties Prebble draws between September 11, 2001, the unbelievable magic of flying, and the unbelievable profitability of a Ponzi scheme, as long as everyone believes in it... well, it's the stuff that makes the Wizard of Oz, Harold Hill, Bernie Madoff, and the UK MP expenses scandal all WORK. Until someone decides to look behind the curtain.

Amazing! And I learned a great deal. I described the experience to Avery as a combination of "The Way We Live Now" and "Legally Blonde: the Musical." If that's not an inducement to queue for a ticket, I don't know what is. She asked if the failed corporate raiders walked around saying, "Oh my God, oh my God, you guys."

Now then, as night follows the day, onto artichokes. I have been haunted by the beauty of the salad I had in Venice, and I have successfully recreated it here! And so can you. Preparing artichokes always makes me wonder how desperate must have been the first person to want to eat them. They're intuitively very off-putting: prickly and difficult. But so satisfying.

Carciofi Crudi con Scampi
(serves 4 as a starter, or 2 as a light lunch)

2 globe artichokes
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup crayfish tails
2 tsps garlic-infused olive oil (or plain oil and a minced clove of garlic)
juice of 1 further lemon, maybe more
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Cut off the stem of the artichoke where it's woody, and peel the outer layer from the rest of the stem with a potato peeler, then cut off the top sort of third of the artichoke. This is because the top and outer leaves are tough and inedible.

Peel away nearly all the outer leaves, until very pale and tender ones are left. Then with a sharp teaspoon, dig in the center of the artichoke and carefully scoop out all the inner leaves and the furry, hairy bits of choke inside them. Err on the side of removing too many inner leaves, rather than leaving behind any choke, which is inedible.

Immediately plunge the artichokes in lemon water, to prevent them turning brown.

When you are ready to serve your salad, remove the artichokes one at a time, shake off the water, and slice PAPER thin, as thin as you can manage. As soon as you finish slicing an artichoke, place in a medium-sized bowl and sprinkle with lemon juice, toss to mix. Move onto the next artichoke and repeat, adding more lemon juice and tossing again.

Mix the crayfish tails with the artichokes and sprinkle over the olive oil, lemon juice to taste, and season well. Mix well and to serve, pile in the center of the plate as high as you can. Perfect.


The buttery, briny richness of the crayfish and their softness go perfectly with the gentle bite of the artichoke. I decided to go with the garlic-infused oil rather than simple oil and minced garlic, just because I wanted to be able to taste fully the delicate artichokes. Next time, I might use chilli oil, or even sprinkle a few chilli flakes over the top of the salad. With a grilled chop or fillet of fish, sprinkled liberally with flat-leaf parsley, you'll have the perfect dinner.

Well, believe it or not, I'm off to deliver a lovely warm banana and apple spice cake to my erstwhile tennis instructor, the cologne-emitting but very talented Rocco. In return for this, he has offered a free lesson, and I'm beginning to think I'm ready to learn to serve properly. I have end-of-winter body and since I don't plan to eat less, I'd better exercise more. And how many calories can there be in an artichoke?


john's mom said...

OMG, OMG, somebody publish that review. Right now! Ring up Time Out or the New Yorker or Hello Magazine. Someone. Right now.

John's Mom

A Work in Progress said...

Ah yes, debt-laden corporate structures... As that is too depressing to contemplate (as attractive as your review is, I don't think I could see Enron as I would probably start yelling at the stage), I will think about that gorgeous salad instead. I have never attempted artichoke - the instructions sound so complicated! The picture at the top looks like it comes from a very high-end magazine or cookbook. So beautiful!

Kristen In London said...

John's mom, you are too kind. Would that it were possible. Only Work in Progress often says the same thing!

Maybe we're onto something? Watch this space!

And no, the artichokes are easy. It must be my instructions that are misguided. Just peel, scoop and slice! And lemon, don't forget the lemon.

Bee said...

We moved to Houston in August 2001, the same week that Jeff Skilling announced that he was leaving Enron "to spend more time with his kids." (yea, right) About 2/3rds of the people that we knew worked for Enron. I would LOVE to see this show. I'm amazed, too, at the playwright's age.

The salad sounds and looks gorgeous. I played tennis on Monday . . . for the first time in a year! Winter body, indeed.

Kristen In London said...

Amazing, Bee, about Enron! See it if you can bear it.

Did you get my FB private message?