THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Glengarry Glen Ross review
By David Mamet
Playhouse Theatre, London
By Jarlath O'Connell
The salesman has become a rather archetypal figure in America’s identity and folklore, embodying the American dream and taking a central role in art and literature, think of Willy Loman in Death of Salesman. He is usually presented as a Sir Galahad type, heading out every day to slay his Dragons, in this case unwitting purchasers of plots of land. His fast talking bluster invites admiration for he is a man getting by on his wits and making it on his own. Perhaps only the Cowboy could be more American.
Mamet’s great play about real estate salesmen, won the Pulitzer and wowed Broadway in 1984 but, interestingly, was premiered the year before here at the National Theatre. Since then it has had a number of acclaimed revivals and was filmed by 1992 with a sublime cast led by Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon.
Mamet makes us ponder the dark side of all this male bravado while revelling in the strategies they employ. The four Chicago realtors may be at times ruthless, dishonest and immoral but there is a gnawing sense of desperation underneath. The competitive system which gives more only to the winners, drives them into the ground. The head office uses divide and rule to sow distrust and fear among the closely knit bunch. They despise the young office manager Williamson (Kris Marshall) who they accuse of being a bureaucrat and "less than a man", precisely because he literally holds all the cards. He dishes out the ‘prime leads’ on which their survival depends, as if he were some medieval prince.
Top of the pile with the most sales is Ricky Roma played by Hollywood star Christian Slater who attacks this plum role with real relish. The part requires charisma and he has it in spades. The rest of the ensemble do struggle to match up. Stanley Townsend, whose booming voice and commanding presence is more suitable to authority figures, is rather miscast as the pathetic Shelly, whose arc goes from desperation to triumph and back to failure after his buyer turns out to be a fraud. Don Warrington is suitably bedraggled as the world weary George. It’s as if self-esteem was slowly drained from him.
Chiara Stephenson’s designs are spot-on, including a Chinese restaurant so soulless you can almost feel the chill. It is here the salesmen meet to plot and scheme and we hear the cocky Dave (Robert Glenister) revealing to an ambivalent George his plan to stage a break-in at the office to steal all the leads. Mamet’s ear for the cadences and the shifty vocabulary of conspiracy is unparalleled. "Are we actually talking about this?" is no doubt often heard these days in the corridors of Westminster.
On the night this reviewer went the production was marked by a very sad event when Robert Glenister appeared to have a complete mental breakdown on stage. A brave understudy (Mark Carlisle) took over after a lengthy break but as it was so early in the run he was still ‘on the book’ which sadly did have the effect of draining the energy from the piece. No doubt this will be resolved. Glenister had embodied Dave’s over-wrought frustration so well that we initially did not recognise he was having his own difficulties. He is a wonderful actor and we wish him well.