The rhythms of theft and deception

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Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) is not among David Mamet’s deepest or most impassioned plays. But it is surely the finest distillation of the style of speech that has become identified with him, which is a matter of ellipsis, incompleteness, hesitation, repetition and probably deviation too; Mamet characters would make terrible Just A Minute panellists. It takes Pinteresque banality and gives it a contemporary American tang, and like Pinter’s dialogue it sounds at once entirely natural and quite abstract. Mamet takes speech beyond poetry into a kind of aural ballet: you can hear words leaping from spot to spot, pirouetting on a comma, going en pointe without actually moving towards a target.

At least, this is true when it is delivered properly. It amazes me how many performers fail to hear the natural rhythms in Mamet’s lines and seek to impose their own. Even the all-star movie version of Glengarry is not immune. Nor is James Macdonald’s West End revival, but it’s damn close. Paul Freeman as George Aaronow, the most ineffectual of a quartet of fraudulent Chicagoan property salesmen, occasionally misjudges a rhythm; Aidan Gillen as hot-shot Richard Roma foolishly tries to impose his own pace on to his first-act monologue, but locks in perfectly in the second act (although the occasional native Dublin vowel escapes, surprisingly from an actor who has spent much of the past couple of years playing the Italian-American city councilman Tommy Carcetti in the HBO TV series The Wire). You begin to luxuriate in superficially content-free exchanges such as: “Are you actually talking about this, or are we just...” – “No, we’re just... ” – “We’re just ‘talking’ about it.” – “We’re just speaking about it.”

I say “superficially”, because everyone here has ulterior motives. Mamet shows us the unscrupulousness of these hucksters by concentrating not on the sharp end of the sale (we see only one actual customer, an ineffectual specimen to whom Roma delivers his big first-act spiel), but on what they do to each other: they conspire, cross, double-cross... Even if we had not heard it proposed in the first act, it would come as no surprise that during the interval, as it were, the outfit’s office has been broken into and the precious list of sales leads stolen, most certainly by one of the salesmen.

The moviemakers adulterated Mamet when they gave Jack Lemmon a human motive to render his character more sympathetic. Jonathan Pryce here has no truck with that as the same character, Shelly Levene, now on the skids as a salesman and sweating desperation but still pumping out the shtick to no-hope clients and to office manager Williamson alike. Peter McDonald is point-perfect as the latter, giving no inkling that he is a last-minute replacement in the role. As all around him get het up first about the monthly sales competition (the winner gets a Cadillac, the loser gets the sack) and then the break-in, McDonald remains impassive, letting the lines and his fellows do the donkey-work just as Williamson would. The sharpest performance of the lot, though, is Matthew Marsh as the misanthropic Moss, the one who “just speaks” about a break-in during Act One and spews some magnificent bile in Act Two. Moss has fangs, and Marsh shows them clearly.

I have often seen a set design elicit a round of applause, but never one like Anthony Ward’s office set, a place obviously squalid to begin with and now further trashed by the burglar. Yet trash can yield treasure, and does so here, even in barely 80 minutes of playing time.

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