Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Review Glengarry Glen Ross

Francis Beckett is sold a gem of a production as a searing 1980s' David Mamet play shows its true value

 Glengarry Glen Ross 
by David Mamet 

The Real Estate Of The Nation

Just over 30 years separate David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman but they are special for the same reason.

Their sad, broken-down salesmen – Miller’s Willy Loman from 1949, Mamet’s Shelly Levene from 1983 – may be pretty worthless people, plying a parasitic trade, but Miller and Mamet care about them, and they make us care about them too.

The genius of Miller and Mamet is that they put on stage people from whom, in real life, one would recoil – and yet, when those characters get their well-deserved comeuppance, it moves us almost to tears.

Loman and Levene may be symbols of everything that is worst about capitalism. But they are its victims, just as much as the people they gull are victims.

Glengarry Glen Ross is as near a perfect piece of dramatic writing as you’ll find. We get to spend an evening and the following morning with an American real estate company.

We spend the time in the company of four men who earn their commission by gulling people into buying  property they neither want nor need, two men who run the office and batten on their salesmens’ skill, and one man who falls for the salesmens’ wiles. And we are on the edge of our seat all the time.

The salesmen see themselves as the American dream personified: pioneers out on a dusty trail, with only their wits and their courage between them and oblivion.

When Americans talk about rugged individualism, they really mean poor saps like Loman and Levene.

They dress in their habitual uniforms, shabby grey suits, sell grey products designed by someone else, see themselves as cowboys, even as they do the bidding of even greyer men than themselves.

These salesmen also think of themselves as Men, with an upper case M. They dismiss wives and women, their own, if they have them, and those of their customers.

“A man’s his job” growls Shelley, and, when he finally makes a sale: “I’ve got my balls back.”  He tells what he calls his war stories, how cleverly he cajoled the customer, how he held the pen just so.

He thinks his skills, his charm, his beautiful voice, are all you need to succeed in the world. He is wrong.

Miller and Mamet understand that the skill these men have is a wonderful one; and that the exercise of the skill is what gives them self-worth. They think they do it to enrich themselves, but they could get richer sitting behind desks.

What drives them is the adrenaline rush of selling.  They are salesmen. They must sell, just as some people have to write.

I knew a man like that. He sold advertising space, and he was very good at it.  Yet the magazines for which he sold the space despaired of him. He had no interest at all in making sure bills were sent out, or even compiling the information that would enable someone else to send them out.

And it didn’t matter how often he was told to sell no more space to those companies that failed to pay up; he persisted in selling to them. Like Shelly Levene, he closed the deal.  That is what he did.

Levene is played in this production by Stanley Townsend – a startling, brilliant, mesmerising performance. He does not take the easy route of allowing Levene to sound as sad and pathetic as he is.

No, the bluff and bluster never lets up. It pours from his strong, fruity voice, telling the world he is in charge even as he is being pushed contemptuously off the edge.

Christian Slater and Kris Marshall are excellent as Ricky Roma, the younger salesman, and John Williamson, the deskbound agent of Levene's demise with Don Warrington giving solid support, but for me they were little more than foils for Townsend’s towering tour de force.

The night I saw it, Robert Glenister was ill – he had collapsed on stage on Friday and hopes to be back in a few days.  Understudy Mark Carlisle coped with the difficult part of salesman Dave Moss, but I felt for him: he had not had enough time to prepare, or to inhabit the part.

Chiara Stephenson gives us two magnificent and entirely convincing sets, a restaurant and an office, one for each act. Sam Yates directs with the proper respect for Mamet’s fully rounded characters and razor sharp dialogue.

A green light for this set of salesmen who deliver the goods at the Playhouse Theatre.

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