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Theatre Review: Glengarry Glen Ross/Manchester Library

Joan Davies listens to the air turning blue

Published on March 22nd 2010.

Theatre Review: Glengarry Glen Ross/Manchester Library

DAVID Mamet’s well-known play, Glengarry Glen Ross, sizzles, scorches and snarls across the stage in its current run at the Library Theatre.

It is said that actors call this play ‘Death of a Fucking Salesman’ – the reference to Arthur Miller being both a sign of respect for the quality of Mamet’s dramatic powers and recognition of the vast amount of swearing it contains.

The theatre’s artistic director, Chris Honer, clearly one among many Mamet fans, has assembled an impressive, largely-local cast to do justice to this modern classic of American theatre. Premièred in London then triumphantly transferred to the American stage and film, this high-octane look at one of the more unpleasant but mainstream slices of American life grabs your attention and swirls your sympathies along in a tale of winners and losers in US real-estate.

Glengarry Glen Ross won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. That’s 25 years ago – the world of Thatcher and Reagan – three years before Gordon Gekko pronounced that ‘Greed is Good’ in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Greed is good here too. It’s what drives the salesmen to succeed, motivated by bonuses, cutlery and cars. And it's what drives the prospects to buy, motivated by the chance to make a profit on desirable real-estate early in the development stages.

Four salesmen, an office manager, a potential customer-victim and a police officer make up the all male cast.

Part of Mamet’s skill lies in the way he’s constructed other characters, often referenced but never seen, who exert presence as they propel the action and drive the participants towards an uncertain future. The unseen owners are driving the sales force down to two. The current sales competition will determine who gets the push, who gets the steak-knives, and who gets the Cadillac. The salesmen are caught between owners, family, customers and rivals who never appear and whose motives are therefore never questioned.

We just focus on the sales team. And what a team. The casting accentuates their individuality. David Fleeshman as Shelly ‘The Machine’ Levene, desperate to keep working to support his daughter, gives a convincing performance as a man who understands but avoids acceptance of his waning powers.

As Richard Roma, Richard Dormer portrays a man wading through so many layers of knowingness it’s a surprise that he hasn’t drowned in deceit and complicity. His near soliloquies are mesmerising with a logic and drive that deceive. James Quinn as the nervy and failing George Aaronow, and John McAndrew, who plays the plotting Dave Moss, complete the impressive quartet.

Despite the team-members’ years of competing to be top dog and the approaching day of reckoning, they can still hunt together. A scene where Levine and Roma combine forces to outwit a buyer trying to withdraw from the contract provides an entertaining dramatic contrast and another angle on their motivation.

Judith Croft‘s two-part set design complements the writing. The first, a Chinese restaurant where salesmen meet to plot in booths surrounded by images of empire, leaves the protagonists seated, still. The audience, compelled to focus on the words, grasps the problem, the background, the characters and the possibilities in a highly economical 35 minutes.

In the second more expansive set, a partially-ransacked office of mediocre furniture, both image and action are dominated by one item: the board showing the sales figures.

This production plays to the strengths of Mamet’s writing. The economical storytelling combined with the fast-paced, rhythmic, some say almost poetic language allow the writer to cut straight to the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the interactions. It’s almost surgical. There’s no time for sentiment, anguish, moral doubt; just speak, act, do. Mamet’s view is that, 'People may or may not say what they mean...but they always say something designed to get what they want.'

For the salesmen every word is crucial, designed to turn leads into sales. So for the actors every word is crucial, delivered in convincing American accents, and in convincing realistic style.

It is said that actors call this play ‘Death of a Fucking Salesman’ – the reference to Arthur Miller being both a sign of respect for the quality of Mamet’s dramatic powers and recognition of the vast amount of swearing it contains. Post-Pulp Fiction the language didn’t seem in any way out of place. I have it on good authority that salesmen swear a lot when out of customer earshot.

Mamet believes that 'people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.' You don’t have to agree with all of that statement to find this production an impressive addition to this superb theatre’s last season in its current home.

Glengarry Glen Ross, Library Theatre, until Saturday 3 April 2010, 0161 236 7110, www.librarytheatre.com.

Accompanying Glengarry Glen Ross is Mr Happiness, a short one-man drama by David Mamet set in a New York radio station in 1934, and featuring James Quinn. Performances: Wednesday 31 March-Friday 2 April, 6pm.

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Peter Coyle

i wish i had been there…it sounds like something joyous and anarchic...the way the article is…

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Couldn't agree more. This is a super piece. Ken would be proud that not a penny of public money was…

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