David Mamet’s Edmond, featuring an inspired Kenneth Branagh in his first outing on the London stage for many years, is a powerful and provocative piece that races like a train through its 75 minute running time. The play’s 25 scenes race by, one after the other, moving Edmond deeper and deeper into trouble, more and more exhausted, until he finally finds solace in the most unlikely form of his prison cellmate.
Written in 1982, Mamet set his play amidst the sleaze of the New York City of that day, when pimps, prostitutes, card-sharps and muggers ruled the city’s streets, and policemen were more likely to aid and abet than deter and prevent. Edmond, having consulted a fortuneteller, decides that he is no longer going to be the downtrodden husband, and it is time to be straight with his wife, and so uses a futile argument as a platform to declare that their marriage has been loveless and sexless for too many years. He is going out, and he is not coming back.
And so the scenes follow, in rapid succession as Edmond, on a Dantesque trip into his own Hell, trawls the city streets in search of what he fears he has been missing throughout all his married years, expressing his white Anglo Saxon rascist and homophobic views to all who will listen. He visits seedy bars, massage parlours, knocking shops (and fails in his objectives in each), gets stiffed by a card-sharp, until finally he gets what he wants, only to murder his conquest in a fit of uncontrolled rage, leading ultimately to his apparent salvation in a jail cell.
The National’s Olivier Theatre is sparsely set by Michael Pavelka, with concrete dominating the stage, and piercing, probing lighting by Mark Henderson adding to the haunting theme of the piece. Whilst Branagh is undoubtedly the star of the show, the supporting cast of nearly twenty vignettes provide short bursts of action and reaction that allows the audience to be immediately immersed in each scene despite their brevity.
From any angle, director Ed Hall’s Edmond is a terrific piece of theatre, but if you like your theatrical experience to be condensed, powerful and to challenge all the human emotions, this is a must.
(Production photos by Manuel Harlan)
David Mamet made his mark by portraying tormented American men teetering between the working class and poverty, success and failure -- men who take risks they see as brave and we see as foolhardy, which tumble them into disaster. In Edmond he tries to revisit this territory, with results that suggest why this has not been one of his more popular plays. Edmond's descent from bored comfort into seedy adventures, crime, and prison is so direct as to be almost without suspense (except for our wondering if he really is going to undress and/or do a sex scene with one of the prostitutes he visits), while the lowlifes surrounding him are stereotypes who show up for just a few moments each and might as well be painted on cardboard. Not until midway through the play, when Edmond connects (implausibly) with a waitress and gets to play a full scene with her, do the characters come to life. Only in the last quarter of the play does Mamet's gift for depicting the odd twists of fortune and of desperate characters triumph over his Hogarthian plot.
Someone next to me echoed the TimeOut reviewer's comment that Kenneth Branagh's performance as Edmond is stronger than the script, and indeed it is. Still, although Branagh musters an impeccable Midwestern accent and does an admirable job of portraying his character's progress from dawning curiosity through wild self-expression, aggression, and despair, his Edmond remains a touch more British than American -- more Henry V than Teach. The early scene when Edmond decides to leave his wife shows us a man whose place in his native society, and apparently in the actor's and director's minds, is unclear: his wife's clothing, manner, and dialogue reflect the irritating complacency of a long and well-funded upper-middle-class marriage, whereas Edmond seems more like a fertilizer salesman, a stranger to her and her household -- not just an alienated character but an actor who's walked into the wrong scene. (Nor did I believe that her reaction to her husband's departure would be to shout repeatedly, "You idiot!") Edmond's rants against blacks and women, which showcase just about every offensive expletive for each group, likewise seem contrived, suggesting the playwright thumbing his nose at the audience rather than the character erupting with long-repressed rancour.
Blessings on the Olivier for offering seats to this play for 10 pounds. I'd have been sorry to pay more for it.
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says of Kenneth Branagh " Remarkable return to the stage with an intense, shocking performance." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Kenneth Branagh makes an impressive return to the London stage in Edward Hall's balefully witty revival of Edmond, a strange and provocative moral fable." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Superb production." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Thrilling production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Energetic, pacey and well-acted."
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