Speed-The-Plow / An English Tragedy / Blasted
Various venues
February, 2008

Benedict Nightingale, in his review of Speed-The-Plow, rightly questions the plausibility of the second-act turnaround in which studio exec Bobby Gould is talked around from being about to green-light a prison movie with a bankable star into going with an adaptation of a turgid “literary” novel.  He is also right to say that this does little to detract from the fireworks between Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum in the first and third acts; they are surely the most dynamic double-act to hit the London stage in years.  But I wonder whether that second-act flaw is not indicative of a weakness in Mamet’s writing more generally.  I’m not thinking of the fact (though it is a fact) that he writes far better male roles than female.  Rather, it seems to me that I can’t recall a Mamet play in which a plot twist was plausibly achieved by sustained argument rather than sudden revelation.  Even the definitive work of Mamet-ese Glengarry Glen Ross, which is all about the use of words to change people’s opinions (in the form of salesmanship), rests its crucial reversal on a single slip of the tongue. 

The speed of Spacey’s and Goldblum’s tongues in the first act was also remarked upon by several reviewers, who were hard put even to pick up a number of lines.  I saw the show a few days after the first reviews had come out; perhaps they were marshalling their resources in a matinée performance, but I suspect that the matter had been noted and worked on – at any rate, the dialogue was pacy and dynamic rather than frantic and gabbled.


Tim Walker suggests in his review of An English Tragedy that “when it makes its inevitable West End transfer I would recommend […] drafting in Rupert Everett to play John Amery”, thus demonstrating his own priorities as regards various kinds of authenticity.  It seems that Everett’s being almost a generation older than John Amery is not a problem; rather, Tim is being an authentic friend to Everett, who has not only appeared in previous pieces as a noted chum of the reviewer but on occasion even as Tim’s theatregoing companion.  Strangely, he didn’t mention that connection this time.


The ultimate example of faithful adherence took place in Leeds.  I may not have seen Hamlet at Elsinore, but I have now seen Sarah Kane’s Blasted in Room 807 of the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds, which although unnamed in the script is generally accepted to be the hotel she had in mind for the setting of the play.  The Nineteen: Twenty Nine company performed it to around a dozen people at a time, instructing the audience to wear masks à la Punchdrunk, and with I suspect a similar unspoken ambivalence of effect.  It was not simply a matter of making us appear impersonal to each other – even, in our Ku Klux Klan-style white hoods, sinister –  as we watched the progression of sexual and violent abuse in Kane’s dystopia.  Rather, up so close, I think it might also have been easier for the performers not to have recognisable faces watching them… for it was we who were in their faces more than they in ours.  (In any case, I apologise to the company for not being masked myself; there weren’t enough hoods to go round, and the performance began just before I could tear holes in one of the pillow-cases.)

I found it instructive to see that authenticity of location can actually detract from the power of the viewing experience.  Obviously, we don’t truly believe in these events when we see them onstage, but again the closeness served principally to emphasise their unreality and the fact that the company were working gingerly around numerous constraints.  (They couldn’t even get an exemption from the hotel’s smoking ban for the several cigarettes smoked in the script; consequently, the character of Ian, supposedly unrepentant about the disintegration of his one remaining lung, had on this occasion to keep taking out his packet of cigs, preparing to light one up and then either changing his mind or being distracted).  All told, it was a brave idea, but one whose drawbacks should perhaps have led to its abandonment before it was fully executed (no pun intended).  Still, it took me a while to drop off to sleep in the same hotel later that night… a problem I doubt was shared by the company, who had scheduled three or four performances a day for themselves at two-hourly intervals, leaving them only 10–15 minutes between shows.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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