FringeReview UK 2019
This revival of Mamet’s 1982 signature play is brought to Theatre Royal Brighton by ATG productions and partners; a seven-strong ensemble directed by Sam Yates. Designed by Chiara Stephenson, two sets hollowed by Richard Howell’s lighting. Till April 27th.
Glengarry Glenn Ross is Mamet’s signature play, his 1982 breakthrough brought to Theatre Royal Brighton by ATG productions and partners, with a seven-strong ensemble directed by Sam Yates. Quintessentially American and inaugurating a new American theatre, it was in fact premiered at the National’s Cottesloe in 1983 before transferring eventually to Broadway the next year.
Designed by Chiara Stephenson, two sets hollowed by Richard Howell’s lighting, the two acts are simply-staged. The first’s a series of duets spotlit at different bar tables in a typically outré 1980s Chinese restaurant, with red lampshades like suspended poison mushrooms and gilt paintings glimmering hideously like come-ons: a Chinese response to cultural appropriation and self-parody.
The second’s a sacked office, documents littering the ground out of heavy metal filing cabinets with stage right upstage, a small office soundproofed, topped by cardboard packing boxes. It’s a study of capital in terminal outflow, shredding itself. There’s a corridor attached stage left too, with further strip lighting.
The first act duets set up rivalries and plea-bargainings. Mark Benton’s Shelley Levene – straight out of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with a twist – starts at breathtaking pace as he cajoles, finally begs manager Williamson (convincingly freeze-dried-mean Scott Sparrow) to give him some of the prime Glengarry leads only the two top-scoring salesmen will get. The Glen Ross chickenfeed leads yield nothing. Benton’s domineering bargain-closing tactics on his own manager parody his once sovereign technique, brilliantly unhinging itself. Sparrow’s tight-jawed negatives then cat’s-paw mauling of Machine Levene – once top salesman – elicits Benton’s ever-desperate gambits.
The next pair provide the engine: Denis Conway’s magnificently nasty bully Moss threatens to make nervous Aaronow an accessory to his plan to break in and steal the coveted sales-leads and sell on. Moss sneers that even hearing of it’s enough to make Aaronow a criminal. And since Moss would be an obvious suspect, Aaronow must do it. Again a once commanding breed of salesman is pitching something – in this case blackmailing to gain illegal documents – to one of his own. Capitalism is eating itself. Every tick of this harangue and flinch is riveting: it’s perhaps the best scene in a stunning production. Conway’s outstanding, seeming to expand a red face in fury when crossed – something he resorts to in the next act, but with more impotent fury. Wil Johnson is a study of headlight-caught terror, stuttering guilt. He goes distractedly to pieces before us but with a desperate contained dignity. He’s not as much of a pushover as he seems.
Elsewhere Alpha Ricky Roma – generous-seeming but ruthless where necessary – philosophizes to hapless sales-victim Lingk. It’s the only legitimate pitch of all three, but with legitimacy like this, who needs illegal?
Nigel Harman manages to convey generous-speaking Mafiosi. His cut of suit’s better too, dark blue and camel coat, to say Levene’s dark green apparel that seems already outmoded, hanging round Benton’s frame. Roma’s reflective, outlining gleaming hinterlands when there might be just glitterballs. James Staddon’s bedraggled Lingk later on gives a masterclass in mute cringing victimhood, racked between a ferocious wife offstage and dominant Roma here and now. Staddon’s physical discomfort shivers across, especially his screwed-up face working mute noes to Roma. When he stammers – or just opens and closes his mouth like an unobtrusive goldfish – it’s difficult to watch anyone else.
He’s even guilty as hell when brutish detective Baylen (Zephryn Taitte) starts quizzing in weary, finally impatient hard-boil mode; indeed all characters particularly Roma hurl Baylen panicky insults. Roma’s need to control his persona and its slippages is admirably sheathed by Harman like a glinting knife. The pressure allows Williamson – no salesman – to let fall crucial information just as Lingk shows up, about to be spirited to the door after Roma with Leven’s help have falsely calmed his fears about a cheque.
Sparrow proves why Williamson’s boss though; a sneery tight-arsed son of (comparative) privilege who misses one situation but not another. When we first see him Sparrow seems bamboozled, his adversaries thinking that not letting him get a word in means they’ve won. He quickly disproves that, but he’s also more cunning, and more cruel.
Benton arrays an amplitude of selves: to Roma who admires and wants to work with him though cutting himself double; from pleading to triumphant hutzpah with Williamson when closing an unexpected deal – lovingly described to Roma in the drama’s iconic Eighties moment ‘I held out the pen…. for 22 minutes…. till he took it… and passed it to his wife.’ Accents throughout are impeccable.
Johnson’s been set up in the first act, so every move or question from him is leapt upon. All’s not as it seems though; the denouement – with Johnson’s Aaronow having the last word – shows why this play’s so esteemed.
The ensemble’s immersion in Mamet is consummate; each flinched self-betrayal in the second act is caught too, as is each switchback and plot-reversal. Mamet’s language is a gift though wielded like an open razor, cuts unwary speakers. Here we see the hyper-naturalism now dominating the American stage, freshly arriving with visceral force: not to communicate but dominate. Both as critique and endorsement of a more conservative America, it specializes in meta-patois that isolate even mutual users from each other.
Yates’ detailed but pacey direction is as clean as Richard Howell’s lighting, and as unobtrusively idiomatic as a pair of red braces. This is more than a first-rate revival though: it couldn’t be bettered. Its pace is brisker and even more Mamet-like than previous productions. Benton comes close to Jack Lemon’s pathos in the film too. But more than anything else, the production with its set values and verbal pace captures the essence of testosterone-fuelled competitiveness at the heart of a system about to consume itself and implode. Outstanding anywhere.