The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Summer 2003
David Mamet's 1982 play is barely 70 minutes long, and it doesn't read particularly well.
But the current National Theatre production proves that in the hands of the right director and right actor, it is an unrelentingly powerful piece that takes its place among Mamet's unmatched dissections of the psyche of the American male.
The title character is an affluent fortyish man who suddenly realises his life is empty. He walks out on the wife he hasn't loved for years and goes in search of fulfillment.
But, as he sinks ever lower into the underside of the city, all he finds is degradation, from barroom to peep show to massage parlour to street mugger to violence to prison and rape.
And somewhere along the way, perhaps only at the very end, we realise that this has in fact been what he has been searching for - the complete escape from self that only lies in debasement and destruction.
Wow. Tennessee Williams might have been capable of that vision, but he would have romanticised it, perhaps beautifully. But Mamet just stares at it coldly, and dares us to face it as well.
And the only way most of us can is if Edmond himself is made so very recognisably real and true that we have no defence against the play.
Stand forth, Kenneth Branagh, who returns to the London stage after an absence of well over a decade, and gives the character and the play the life and reality it needs.
Starting with Edmond's befuddled, ill-thought-out awareness that he is unhappy, he gradually lets us see - almost always before the character realises it himself - a deep and violent anger and a need to be exploited and abused that are totally convincing, however scary in their implications.
Branagh is onstage almost constantly, and has at least two-thirds of the play's lines, and so the play's success lies entirely in his hands, and those of director Edward Hall for guiding him through this emotional journey.
If ever a play was designed for the intimacy of the Cottesloe, this is it. But economics - Branagh sells tickets - require that it be done in the Olivier, and director Hall has not been wholly successful in keeping it from getting lost in that space, despite blocking off half the stage.
Nor has he been able to do much for the eighteen other members of the cast, most of them doubling roles, who get no more than a minute or two to create characters we'll never see again.
No, the play rises or falls wholly on the power of Mamet's writing and Branagh's performance, and both are as powerful as you are likely to encounter anywhere this year.
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