Russell Bolam directs a new production of David Mamet’s rarely performed two-hander first produced in 1977 and not seen in London for twenty-five years.
The set (Anthony Lamble) is a beautifully carpentered wooden façade of a lakeside summer house, complete with decking out front, upon which most of the action takes place. If anything, the house looks too good for its supposed age as it has been Nick’s summer place all his lifetime. His rowing boat, presumably of similar vintage, is discovered by Ruth to have half rotted away.
Our first view of the couple shows Ruth (Francesca Carpanini) to be madly in love with Nick (Sam Frenchum), prattling away to him about not very much of consequence; conversation which is received with monosyllabic and noncommittal answers. Nick stares with unblinking eyes and a featureless expression. We ascertain from the outset that this man is not quite all right, and Frenchum acts the part to a tee. Over three parts of the day – dusk/night/morning – the couple tell each other part-stories, never quite ending their tales. Ruth talks of her grandmother, Nick of his father. The stories involve bears, birds, fish, and even Martians; stories that are started, and left unfinished.
Subtle subdued lighting (Bethany Gupwell) changes over the course of the night and into the next morning including a well-designed lightning storm. Some superfluous flickering of a porch lamp between the scenes alongside ominous eerie sounds (Ali Taie) hint at the supernatural or, perhaps, a representation of Nick’s bad dreams.
Just as seen in Shakespeare, life in The Woods is different from that of The City but there is little evidence that Nick is liberated by the country idyll. It appears the more Ruth professes her love for him, the more clammed up Nick becomes until things turn ugly. Special mention here for Fight/Intimacy Co-ordinator Haruka Kuroda whose work with the two actors ensures the close scenes between the couple are totally credible and produces a most convincing on-stage scuffle that is indeed uncomfortable viewing.
The morning after the night before produces the finest moments of the play as Ruth finds some stoicism in her dealings with Nick and this audience finds some humour here that resonated. Whilst we can say that Mamet does not go far enough in exploring the possibilities between the couple – perhaps what we see and hear today was shocking enough forty-five years ago – this is a beautifully presented production of a play that gives little for the actors to work with. But Sam Frenchum and Francesca Carpanini work well together with what they have and the performance of Carpanini, in particular, is captivating.
“a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances”
“Nobody minded bad behaviour as long as the public didn’t get to hear about it” Louis B. Mayer once told his young star, Mickey Rooney. Since the birth of Hollywood this has been a truism, sustaining the myth of the movie mogul as profane, vulgar, cruel, rapacious and philandering. The only real change these days is that the public does get to hear about it more and more. There is currently one name that everybody will no doubt associate with Barney Fein, the sleaze-ball producer masterfully played by John Malkovitch in David Mamet’s “Bitter Wheat”. But Mamet’s writing points the finger at a longer line of tycoons to produce an amalgam which adds more dimensions to the character. Malkovitch seizes this opportunity to add humour and human traces. But never sympathy.
Nobody escapes the machine-gun fire of Fein’s vitriol that turns to lasciviousness when he meets young actress, Yung Kim Li, to discuss her new film. He promises stardom, and we all know in return for what, especially as he has just had a high dose of a libido-enhancing drug that is just kicking in. Ioanna Kimbook catches on just as quickly with an impressive portrayal of the ingénue’s growing discomfort. It’s in this scene that Mamet’s wit really shines through, with faux-pas in abundance that soon take a darker turn when the inevitable career defining threat arrives.
Sadly, neither character comes out of this well. Nor does the second act which seems to be racing towards its rather farcical conclusion. Naturally, when the police are brought in Fein’s life falls apart. But the actress’ career is destroyed too, before it has started. Fein’s long-suffering secretary is also out of a job. Doon Mackichan downplays the contempt she feels for Fein perfectly – pitching it just right: high enough to be recognised but low enough to avoid the counterattack.
The subplots and sub characters that are tagged onto this central story seem unnecessary. An illegal immigrant who assassinates Fein’s terminally ill mother serves little purpose. The opening scene of the play, on the other hand, in which Fein refuses to pay a screenwriter his due fee is underexplored and unceremoniously discarded. It is in these moments that we are given a stronger insight into the psyche of the extraordinary character that is Barney Fein; and into the machinations of Hollywood. There is a quirkiness to the dialogue that is unmatched by the predictability of the sexual assault headlines.
Overall though, this is a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances. Mamet manages to display his usual, exhilarating and unique flair with words, tackling an uncomfortable subject. If anything, however, the humour makes it all a bit too comfortable and doesn’t necessarily advance the issues it is addressing. In this case truth is stranger than fiction.