Industry produces wealth, it is said; God speed the plow.
David Mamet’s 1988 three-hander of morality, power and corruption within the Hollywood film industry has aged rather well, and in a month that has seen the election of Donald Trump, also feels oddly portentous. The adage that lends the play its title is indeed quite fitting: this is sharp and industrious dialogue, the kind of school that informed Aaron Sorkin and ensures our thoughts never stray far from the stage.
The small cast – Damon Herriman, Lachy Hulme and our very own Hollywood success, Rose Byrne – offers compelling performances. Herriman is Bobby Gould, a studio executive with the power to green-light films, an especially handy skill when his friend Charlie Fox (Hulme) brings him a script and bankable director to approve within 24 hours. Enter the out-of-place Karen (Byrne) – a temp secretary, she is soon encouraged to finish a ‘courtesy read’ of a rather nebulous novel, The Bridge, and tell Bobby what she thinks; really, the whole gesture is a front to get Karen into bed and win Bobby a $500 bet to that effect. Yet Bobby’s career success is masking a deep sense of disillusionment and fear, and as Karen turns the seductive tables in rapturous praise of what the book has to say, Charlie’s sure-fire green light to fame and fortune begins to slide away.
Andrew Upton began his career at STC with a Mamet play, and so it’s fitting that he closes the loop with one more. It’s also refreshing that across a career studded by rather large-scale productions – The White Guard, Endgame – his last production as artistic director should be something so stripped-back, all lavish sets and costuming jettisoned in favour of word and performance.
Herriman makes for a splendid Bobby, grappling to find significance and strength in a lifestyle he finds increasingly hollow. Byrne has arguably the most difficult part, in that it doesn’t allow many moments for a performer to really shine. It’s a vital role, and one which Byrne embodies from her character’s first hesitant steps onstage, but the lion’s share of comedy and complexity lies with the others. To that end, Hulme’s portrayal of Charlie handily steals the show. It is one of the strongest performances I have seen in some time; indeed, so strong is his arc that I at first feared his meekness was not character, but anxiety. Yet as the story progresses and the gamut of Charlie’s motivations is revealed, you quickly realise Hulme knew exactly what he was doing from the get-go.
The third act, as Charlie learns that Karen has convinced Bobby overnight to ditch his own film in favour of the philosophical, uncommercial novel adaptation, unfolds in a blaze of glory (and, it must be said, a rather poorly choreographed fight scene). When Byrne exasperatedly cries, “We have a meeting!”, Karen is doomed. The tragedy is that she does not know why this statement causes such a dramatic turnaround in Bobby, and for the audience, there is welcome ambiguity, too. Does her adoption of the industry process reveal her intentions had been manipulative from the start? Or, as I choose to believe, does it show Bobby that the very purity and redemption that the novel extols (albeit in apocalyptic fashion), that has so profoundly affected first Karen and then himself, now face being tarnished by the ruthless money machine that is Hollywood? That his life, and that of his industry, could only corrode this thing that has suddenly brought meaning to his days?
Speed-The-Plow is not a perfect play. But it is a fitting farewell from one of our great theatremakers, and with a cast that rises to the occasion.
Photo: James Green
Speed-The-Plowis playing at Roslyn Packer Theatre until Saturday December 17.