Glengarry Glen Ross (Melbourne Theatre Company, 2014)
The first bars of Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’ played as the curtain rose for Glengarry Glen Ross and for a second I hoped the cast were going to break out into song. Being much more familiar with musical theatre, I am still getting used to the nature of straight plays. I’d previously seen two of David Mamet’s plays (both on Broadway) and loved one and hated another. Race – in which two attorneys (one white, one black) are asked to defend a white man accused of raping a black woman – was intense, thought-provoking, and generally awesome (and helped by a brilliant performance by James Spader). On the other hand, Oleanna – about a power struggle between a university professor and his female student – was almost too pretentious for words. Full of convoluted dialogue that completely lost me, it was ultimately unsatisfying. Mamet is known for his distinctive style of writing dialogue, coined as ‘Mamet-speak’ and after these two vastly different experiences I was unsure of whether or not I was a fan. Glengarry Glen Ross, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, held promise, and for the most part it delivered. Set across one night and one day, we follow four real estate agents who are desperate to get their next big sale through unethical and even illegal means.
The dialogue seemed somewhat convoluted but in reading sections of it afterwards, it is surprisingly simple. But not. Reading the written dialogue, one can see that Mamet makes it very clear exactly where the emphasis on his words should be. There is not much room for the performers to give their own take on the material, which is almost a credit to Mamet, whose words will thus be delivered exactly as he intended. Plenty of ellipses, italicised words, and CAPITALS. This is my kind of guy. Of course it’s easy to not even be aware of this when you’re going in blind, which I was. A quick read-through of the program (which unfortunately I didn’t do until afterwards) was enlightening and I strongly recommend paying the $11 to get that extra understanding. There is also a great deal of swearing involved but as strange as this may sound I found that this only improved the dialogue. A good solid F-bomb can add so much!
Glengarry Glen Ross demands your full attention from the start. We don’t get given a thorough introduction to the set-up, but we do get enough to just follow it through. When it ended, I felt like I hadn’t quite ‘got it’ somehow, but I think that was just me assuming it was more complicated than it really was. It may, however, be due to my limited understanding of sales speak. They keep going on about the leads and such, and while I can piece it together it remains somewhat of an unknown quantity when you have no idea how sales work. It’s not really the leads and the sales per se that matter though. It’s the ruthless underhandedness of everyone involved. Though the play works to comment on the manipulative ways of the sales industry, these guys go beyond the usual tricks. They are out and out con-men, selling land that is essentially worthless. There is not a likeable character among them which may turn some audiences off, but it worked for me.
Steve Bisley was set to play Shelly Levene before withdrawing at the last minute due to illness. Subsequently, John McTernan was a late replacement and is thus performing the month-long run with script in hand (I find it so strange that they don’t have understudies). I saw the play towards the end of its run and was impressed that McTernan barely glanced at the script – it would not be easy dialogue to master in a short time. He has a vastly different presence to Bisley and it almost seems odd to imagine them as interchangeable actors for the same role. Alex Dimitriades has the best role to my mind – as Richard Roma he is the slickest, most manipulative of the lot. It’s clear why his name sits on top of the sales leaderboard. He is the only one we get to see in action with a client, and his skills of deception are truly terrifying. Greg Stone as Dave Moss doesn’t get quite as much stage time as Dimitriades, but when he’s on, he’s on fire. Rounding out the cast are Rodney Afif as the uncertain George Aaronow, Nick Barkla as manager John Williamson, Brett Cousins as Roma’s victim James Lingk, and Justin Stewart Cotta as Detective Baylen. Together they make up a terrific ensemble, with Dimitriades and Stone the stars.
I didn’t love Glengarry Glen Ross to the same extent as Race, but I think I am warming to Mamet’s style. I eagerly await the next opportunity to see another one of his works, but next time I might read through the program first. Non-musical theatre is still somewhat of an anomaly to me but I’m willing to give it a shot.
MTC’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross is playing at Southbank Theatre until 9th August