Saturday, 5 November 2016

2016: A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet

A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Playhouse, November 4 – December 4, 2016.

Director – Helen Dallimore

Designers: Production – Hugh O’Connor; Sound – Jed Silver; Lighting – Christopher Page
Performed by Akos Armont and John Gaden

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 5

I bet David Mamet has forgotten The Art of Coarse Acting (by Michael Green, 1964), but I haven’t.  It has a section on how to dominate a scene while hidden behind a sofa, which I actually used when acting in a British farce of that era.

But I bet John Gaden knew it well.  He applies several Coarse Acting devices, but in this play seen from the backstage viewpoint, which makes them even funnier.  The scene where Robert (Gaden) and John (Armont) are in a small boat expecting to die a horrible death, while the stage hand crawls behind to wave a cardboard cutout seagull at the inappropriate moment and steals the scene (from their audience’s point of view) was a great demonstration of the Green Principle.

Yet, though supposedly based on Mamet’s own experience in Repertory, where actors are forever changing costumes, props and whole acting styles, this very funny play is not a mere farce. 

Armont’s John is a young actor learning the game as the constant colleague of old-timer Robert.  As we see them in their horribly cramped dressing room manically change costumes, do make-up, rehearse, answer the phone on the stage manager’s desk in the Opposite Prompt corner, talk about anything and everything, shift props and perform bits of any number of shows (not real ones but imitations by Mamet) and leave to go ‘out’, or go home late at night, and arrive next day, the theatrical genre certainly looks like farce.

But what the play is about is the changing nature of the relationship between Robert and John, as Robert grows older, even towards frailty, and John grows into maturity.

The wonderful thing about this production is that Akos Armond is young, and already is in reality the mature highly professional actor that John becomes; while John Gaden is in reality Robert’s age – but in no way is Gaden showing Robert’s tendencies, not only to pontificate, or to lose his lines, or to fly off the handle in contradiction to his pontifications; and certainly not to become slightly Alzheimic and lose his bearings.  The details of Gaden’s characterisation in movement, voice, facial expression, and the chemistry of his acting relationship with Armond is as precise and fascinating as it ever was when I first saw him perform many decades ago.

The production design, lighting and sound are hugely complicated – backstage is just so full of bits and pieces in typical grotty wings which the actors have to negotiate at speed to meet their cues.  Once, when they forget their lines, they miss a cue – what horror!  While the jaunty music we hear is always just on the edge of comedy.  How well I remember the night when, somehow, a gust of wind got in backstage nearly toppling a 12 foot painted flat onto the actors on stage.  Only our quick-thinking fast-moving stage manager managed to grab it from behind, how I’ll never know, and hold it up for the rest of the scene.  Didn’t we laugh as we tied it in place during interval!

So the only disappointments I have are that the program does not acknowledge the costume designer, unless the supply of myriad costumes was done by the excellent set construction team of Brett Wilbe and Emily Polson; and nor is the role of stage manager named – after all he was a crucial actor, and certainly had his own personality while constantly flitting about, yet obviously always in control backstage.  Perhaps it was assistant stage manager Sunil Chandra we saw, since I don’t think the women Amy Morcom (stage manager) or Angela Atkinson (the other assistant stage manager) appeared.

I note that director Helen Dallimore has at one point in her career been assistant director to Jonathan Biggins (of Wharf Revue fame) on Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Michael Frayn’s famous backstage play, Noises Off.  I’ve no doubt she put that experience to very good use in this show.

And, mentioning the women in passing, I wonder a little why Mamet wrote only men into his play.  Perhaps the ‘business’ with props, costume changing and lack of space might have taken our attention onto issues beyond his key philosophical concern – is this play “Absurd Theatre”, or is theatre essentially just absurd?  Either way, the relationship between John and Robert grows as they work together and come to respect each other.  We in the audience in turn feel for them, and in our applause express our respect for all those engaged in great theatre – the actors, directors, designers and crew.

This season of A Life in the Theatre has only just begun.  Eternity Playhouse is at 39 Burton Street (just off Crown Street, opposite the now defunct TAP Theatre), with a program well worth the trip to Sydney.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

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