theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
David Mamet’s shatteringly honest dissection of young American sexuality in the era of liberation was innovative in 1974, became familiar fodder to student drama societies over the next 20 odd years, influenced countless TV sit-coms, and now that its novelty value has gone, and many of the social and political agendas of the sexes have been modified, the play in this stylish but cold revival shines through purely in the light of its own dramatic merit. It still works because the observation of the eternal misunderstanding between men and women is so truthful, and Mamet’s once controversial staccato style remains one of the great literary expressions of modern communication. And it’s funny.
This production was guaranteed sell-out box office success once Matthew Perry joined the cast as Danny, alongside Minnie Driver as Joan. All that was left to hope for was artistic success. Every time a play is put on, someone’s taking a risk. It’s a courageous act. Hollywood stars accustomed to the security of a studio technically controlling their image are sometimes vulnerable in live theatre. Any actor is vulnerable if he’s misled or discouraged by the director. In this case, poor Matthew Perry appears to be acting in a straitjacket. Knowing his laid-back, effortlessly timed work on Friends, one waits in hope of seeing him loosen up in the part and start enjoying himself, but instead he remains somewhat stiff and inhibited by the clipped style of delivery, which emphasises Mamet’s rhythms at the expense of subtler timing and feeling. Perhaps Perry is nobly trying to differentiate Danny from Chandler; but something prevents him sparkling as the man from Chicago, though he and the rest of the cast are personable and proficient.
Hank Azaria comfortably establishes macho Bernard. The imposingly tall Minnie Driver as the earnest teacher Joan and Kelly Reilly as her artist friend Deborah show the women as almost exotic creatures, aspiring above and beyond the men in intellectual and emotional development. Maybe it’s got something to do with the platform shoes. In line with the rest of the production, their characterisation is one-dimensional and includes a lot of statuesque posing.
The production doesn’t give us the chance to care very much about the characters, though Mamet cares. They suffer from the complications of sexual liberation more than they enjoy its pleasures: as Bernie comically observes ‘Nobody does it normally any more’. Licence ends up being a burden, frightening the men and disappointing the women: ‘I don’t know, I don’t know…’ admits Joan. Any hopes of establishing communication between the sexes ends in despair. In their quarrel scene, Kelly Reilly effectively seizes Deborah’s irony amidst her rage and frustration with Danny’s crass incomprehension: ‘You’re trying to understand women and I’m confusing you with information.’
Director Lindsay Posner hasn’t helped the actors much in their monologues, most of which are left underdeveloped in the confessional downstage area. Kelly Reilly’s speech about a childhood incident leaves a lasting impression, with its crucial final questions of ‘What is the sublimation of what? What signifies what?’ But no-one makes the most of their opportunities for a brilliant comic moment or a vivid evocation of characters we can’t see, such as Danny’s work colleague and Joan’s little schoolchildren caught out in their own sexual exploration.
The mechanical treatment of Mametspeak obscures the rich layers of the comedy and Mamet’s underlying empathy with his characters’ struggle to make sense of life and sex. Reality is sacrificed for style, re-enforced by Jeremy Herbert’s ingenious setting of the scenes in a series of vignettes of varying sizes, glowing with colour, elegantly framed in passe-partouts. It’s a dazzling conceit, but the actors sometimes look as if they have been trapped inside these illuminated boxes by the director, to pose as rather than experience their characters. We never really believe that their relationships with each other matter to them. There’s a slick predictability about the sequence of scenes, as if nobody’s surprised by the turn of events happening to them. Even as we continue to be bombarded by multimedia designs and 70s music tracks, we remain emotionally detached from the lives on stage. It turns into an entertaining puppet show, decorative and amusing, visually but not emotionally engaging, ultimately bleak; the final scene on the beach leaves you in no doubt of the hollowness of Bernard and Danny, but the effect is weakened because you never quite believe they are real people.
In some press publicity, Minnie Driver and Matthew Perry (to put them in reverse billing order) are referred to as the latest Hollywood celebrities to appear in the West End as if there were no distinction between them and the latest discredited politician and his wife to make fools of themselves in pantomime or reality show contestant to present a TV series.
There is a depressing conflation of the ideas of celebrity and film star in currency at present that undermines the acting profession. Whether they have had as much experience on stage as on film or not, these famous names from Hollywood are actors, and many of them have the craftsmanship to overcome the notorious difficulties of switching from one medium to the other and are able to excel in both.
Three years ago, Kathleen Turner gave a masterclass in West End acting, restoring drop-dead glamour and dry leading lady comic timing to the commercial theatre while she filled the space with her voice and presence. Gwyneth Paltrow, a particularly truthful stage actress, and Nicole Kidman brought critics to their knees, as if people were surprised they could talk and walk at the same time, let alone act.
Despite these recent precedents, we are still driven by a cruel curiosity every time a new film star ventures into the arena: will they fall or will they soar? Will screen charisma transmute into stage presence, or fizzle out at the footlights? Duped by celebrity magazines’ photographs of the insides of their homes and even of their mouths into thinking we are acquainted with these people, it’s too easy to either go along in the same frame of mind as supporting a friend in amateur dramatics – ‘Didn’t young Matt and Minnie do well’ – or to subject them to more stringent artistic criteria than normal, as if they really were larger than life, rather than just appearing on screen like that.
If their rumoured production of Private Lives goes ahead, we will welcome Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones on stage with open minds, even if they have slightly eroded their potential in high comedy by their recent burlesque act at the Old Bailey of eating mints off a silver tray in court. Recalling what Judi Dench said once long ago in an interview, before film stardom inevitably raised her own celebrity profile, an actor needs to preserve some mystery.
C J Sheridan © May 2003
Originally published on R&V
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