Sherman Cymru and other Wales venues
Robert Bowman, Lizzie Rogan, Claire Cage
Dir. Robert Bowman
As I walk into the Sherman Studio, I am transported across the Atlantic Ocean to America. A large circle enclosed by the tall wire of a basketball yard dominates the studio. The audience is invited to sit on bleacher-style tiers like American teenagers and it is soon apparent that we have entered a time warp and are now in David Mamet’s 1970’s Chicago. From the costumes, the retro music, even the styling of Danny’s moustache, director Robert Bowman manages to recreate an authentic impression of being plunged into the angst and frustrations of the sexually liberal 70’s.
The play is about the relationship between Danny and Deborah, but the focus is more on their separate friends, Bernie and Joan, and the influence they have on the couple. In thirty-four rapid scenes, we fast forward through Danny and Deborah’s relationship, progressing from the first meeting; to moving in together; to their subsequent break up. Mamet draws us into the tensions and intensity of this personal drama which ends as it begins with all characters single.
Director Robert Bowman, who also takes the role of Bernie, chose to set the play within its original time at the risk of it seeming dated in terms of language and changes in cultural attitudes. But the gamble pays off, perhaps in part due to the current vogue for retro-styling and all things 1970’s vintage. It seems a faintly familiar world, as though the audience has stepped onto the set of Life on Mars. Bowman’s skill is in seducing the audience into accepting Bernie’s chauvinistic views and Joan’s cynicism of men as readily as the clothing, smoking and the appeal of the colour brown which embodied the period.
The performance is in the round; the set is minimal. Three filing cabinets containing props are cleverly shifted by the cast to denote changes in scene. A blanket becomes a bed. The actors never leave the set; changing costume among the audience; sitting beside them between scenes. Initially it feels disconcerting; creating a sense of voyeurism, but it draws the audience into the intimacy of the relationships between the characters. Bowman uses a series of repetitive exercises, a technique devised by Sanford Meisner, in which the cast focus on their acting partner. This allows for elements of spontaneity in how the actors deliver lines in response to the visual and subliminal messages they receive from each other. This generates a different energy and subtlety every time the play is performed; each performance is unique.
Bowman is superb as the misogynistic Bernie; his sexual bragging to friend Danny seems like a precursor to today’s laddism. Cage plays the acid tongued Joan with flair, skilfully spilling her personal cynicism of men into the classroom and extending her school teacher role towards controlling housemate, Deborah. Sholto and Regan as the manipulated Danny and Deborah seem flat in comparison to the dominating personalities of their friends.
The speed and intensity of the action on stage enthrals the audience to the end of the performance. Mamet’s take on the human mating game could have been a dated period piece. But it’s not. Instead it shows that despite changes in fashion and music, socially, cultural attitudes towards dating and mating haven’t changed since the 70’s.