STC: Speed-the-Plow

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Rose Byrne, Damon Herriman and Lachy Hulme in Speed-the-Plow.

First things first. The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow is made well. It’s performed well, hits its marks and sees some obvious dedication from its three actors. Andrew Upton’s direction and Mamet’s dialogue means the time zips along. By my usual indicators, I should’ve loved the show.

And yet, something was in the way.

The story – set in ’80s Hollywood, though never particularly described as such –
involves negotiations between two colleagues, Bob (Damon Herriman) and Charlie (Lachy Hulme). Bob’s moved up the ladder, while Charlie hasn’t. Karen (Rose Byrne), Bob’s secretary, is introduced as at first a pawn – the object of a fuck-bet – but then takes a larger role. It’s a three-hander, with two locations, and is very focused. As you’d expect from the cast, the performances are pretty tight, some occasional accent lapses notwithstanding. All three are strong, but there’s a real sense of drive and of witnessing great work from Herriman.

So what’s the problem? I guess it comes down to the feeling of connection. Much is made in the play of the problems of Hollywood’s choice of the easy over the meaningful. Of course we’ll greenlight a prison buddy film over an esoteric novel about radiation and interpersonal connection! Who’s gonna see something about a dying guy and a bridge when they can watch shit explode? This, we get: the connection between the two male leads is formed by their proximity on the ladder to success, not because of friendship or anything else. But even though the idea of being open to connection (a mug’s game, if we follow the logic which seems to be behind Karen’s arc) the play seems to lack a desire to connect with the audience. There’s not much in the way of resonance, beyond the acknowledgement of the skill involved in creating the thing. The boxes on stage keep the action within, museum cases which kept a polite distance, no matter the affection I had for the performers.

The design of the show is great. It’s understated, but subtly reinforces at once the vacuity of the setting (Bob’s office is renovated just for him, as we imagine it is for every upgraded impresario, to give the impression of leaving their mark) and the cage of the characters’ lives (Bob’s house is a minimalist Baconian armature, white lines, mirrors and fuck-all furniture or relief).

Costuming, too, is good: it evokes the ’80s without resorting to obvious semaphore. Hulme’s late-play suit is a highlight, though I shudder to think how hot that shirt must have been, given the level of sweating involved as things hit the climax. The divide between success and not is indicated in power-suit dressing, and the almost-nun flavour of Byrne’s outfits proves a good choice given her role in the play.

One of the problems with the show is that Mamet’s language is so acrobatically contrived that it highlights the artificial nature of the theatregoing experience. I’d assume this is intentional, as we’re dealing with subjects of vacuity and how things appear on the surface, but it makes for an odd viewing experience. There’s no way to shake the feeling that the lines, as clever as some of them are, are perfected retorts. You know, the things people say when recounting a story, rather than what they actually said at the time, because nobody’s that sharp or on the ball at once.

Yes, I get that this is a fictional environment.

Yes, I get that this is entertainment.

But neither of those things are handled particularly well when instead of being carried along by the brio of the piece, you’re in a darkened room, thinking that that’s not how people speak. It’s evident (and taken as read as the price of admission) with Shakespeare, say. But with Speed-the-Plow I couldn’t help but get a little tired of the snappiness – it was always on but not in a way that ultimately served the piece. I mean, Mamet’s great – you only have to watch the boys-club testosterone bullshit of Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross turn for proof that structure and emphasis are A Thing He Knows – but I couldn’t help but see the strings behind things.

That is, obviously, in addition to the locker-room talk – you’ll see it in that Baldwin video – that permeates the show. Yes, it’s topical in the age of woofy-haired presidents-elect, but it’s not something that has aged well. The show is promoted as being a lot funnier than it actually is. There’s more wry acknowledgement than LOLs in this one, most likely because a lot of the humour (and drama) is predicated on the idea of taking the piss from Karen. It rankles, and every time I had to remind myself I was watching something written in 1988 and things were a bit different then was another obstacle to me feeling I was travelling with the show. It’s problematic, and I’m not sure how to successfully engage with the dialogue in those terms: Karen’s character is the most underwritten in the show, even though she’s the prime mover for the self-investigative revelations which occur in the back end of the piece. It’s just disappointing to reach the pointy end of a play to discover that the satire you’d expected was kind of reduced to “two boys fight over a chick and then make up”. It might be an accurate distillation of power dynamics in Hollywood, but it left me feeling kind of meh.

So how’s it end? A talented ensemble put on a technically good show, and I’m glad I saw it. But the problems in the dialogue – of misogyny, of unnatural dialogue – means that the ensemble are pushing it uphill. True, there’s subtlety in the performances (at times) and Mamet’s loathing for Dudes in General and Hollywood Dudes in Particular is reassuringly acerbic – like Morrissey, you get the idea that nobody’s more disappointed in himself than he – but I left the Roslyn Packer Theatre feeling not much at all. I’d seen a good performance, but it didn’t particularly hit home – a mystifying experience for a lover of snark.

I like theatre to challenge, to make me feel something. Meh isn’t good enough.

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