By Ray Bennett
LONDON – After a decade’s absence from the London stage, Kenneth Branagh could not have chosen a better showcase for his prodigious talents than David Mamet’s pugnacious little play “Edmond”.
As the title character in Mamet’s allegory, he descends from stagnant middle-class civility into a hellish netherworld where his bourgois assymptions are tested and every bias and savage impulse is unleashed. An encounter with a fortune teller causes bland businessman Edmond to confront the emptiness in his life and marriage. His wife’s shrill complaint that the maid has broken a lamp prompts him to flee the safe boredom of his home into the quaqmire of New York’s darkest streets.
The act of leaving his wife tilts him into a freefall that allows no purchase as he sinks into a bog that he mistakes for freedom. To Edmond’s surprise, hookers are expensive, pimps are violent, and the guy who runs a three-card monte game on the street is a cheat. Still, Edmond wanders the streets and encounters big-city nightcrawlers until he is robbed and beaten and left bewildered.
“We live in a fog; we live in a dream,” he declares.
But then he turns and discovers liberation in killing a black man who has attacked him. Screeching racial hatred, Edmond finds what he thinks is a kind of peace in living in the moment. Freed, he goes home with a waitress but their riotous sex play leads to conversation. She balks at his refusal to accept her self-delusions so he knifes her bloodily to death. Undone by his crime, he seeks redemption but the salvation he finds is not so very different from the life he fled.
All this is accomplished in 75 minutes, driven by Edward Hall’s spiky direction and fleshed out by Mamet’s trademark arsenal of language with his asphalt harshness and lacerating tone. There is a large cast for a one-act play and everyone onstage catches the urgency and spirit of the production.
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Edmond’s outraged wife, Nicola Stephenson as an enthusiastic peep-show girl, Rebecca Johsnon as a matter-of-fact hook and Nicola Walker as the unfortunate waitress play off Branagh’s energy splendidly. Carol Macready makes her three roles vivid and Nonso Anozie destroys the stereotype of his massive convict at the climax.
Branagh bites into the prose and spits it our as poetry with his extraordinary ability to utter every phrase and fragment as if they were fresh-born and not from a writer’s page. Onstage throughout the play,Branagh is fearless and confidently naked – once literally – as he makes Edmond’s torment and bewilderment believable.
This is not small accomplishment as much of what Mamet has Edmond say is the direst adolescent blither; callow bleating about life, sex, love, God and fate. The play was written in 1982 and it’s hard to imagine even then that a city-dweller such as Edmond could be so naive.
There is something of Jackson Pollocl about Mamet; he appears to splash words on his canvas, often artfully, rich and colourfully. Certainly, actors relish them. When delivered by Branagh and the other first-rate actors in this production, an audience might also be enthralled.
But the words bear little examination for any lasting meaning. Pollocl’s style, but perhaps not his genius. “Edmond” is, however, a brillian actor’s showcase and Branagh does it brilliantly.
Venue: National Theatre, runs through Oct. 4; Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Carol Macready, Nicola Stephenson, Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Walker, Nonso Anozie; Playwright: David Mamet; Director: Edward Hall; Set designer: Michael Pavelka; Lighting designer: Mark Henderson; Score/sound: Terry Davies, Paul Groothius.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.