Rapid-fire repartee and biting satire expose Hollywood's flip side
When David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow premiered on Broadway in May 1988 with an all-star cast that included Madonna, The New York Times called the play 'as sharp as a buzz saw'.
Nearly two decades later, Hong Kong Players chairman Stephen Bolton, who's directing the production that opens at the Fringe Club on Tuesday, is confident that the play's sting is
as pointed as ever.
'It's a total roller coaster,' he says. 'You're watching people totally devoid of conscience - which can be both hilarious and appalling.'
The biting satire fixes an unforgiving spotlight on the Hollywood movie business, which Mamet came to know intimately, writing screenplays including The Verdict, The Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross, Malcolm X, Wag the Dog and Spanish Prisoner.
In Speed-the-Plow, up-and-coming Hollywood producer Bobby Gould (played by Rob Archibald) and his old friend Charlie Fox (Stephen Elting) verbally spar as they debate the merits of green-lighting Fox's guaranteed blockbuster film versus an adaptation of a spiritual, apocalyptic novel, brought to Gould's attention by his secretary Karen, played by Kimberly Wright. From beginning to cynical finale, Mamet exposes the power and greed behind the dog-eat-dog world of Tinseltown.
Mamet's trademark rapid-fire repartee drives his black comedy. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer has become synonymous with cleverly crafted dialogue that mimics the rhythms of real-life speech to poetic effect. Teeming with repetitive phrasing, punctuation, italicised words and carefully placed pauses, the scripts often read like musical scores.
To achieve maximum effect, they must be followed to the letter, says Bolton, who's taking his first stab at directing a full-length Mamet play. 'There are great little be-bop rhythms that show how little the characters are listening to each other and how much stress they're under,' he says. 'If you listen to conversations on buses or in bars, that's what they sound like. Nobody writes that way but Mamet.' Lose one word, comma or pause, and 'it kind of flattens out', Bolton says.
For actors and directors, Mamet's meticulousness makes for challenging work; Bolton learned this the hard way. About five weeks into rehearsals and three weeks before the production was set to open in May, he and his cast of three realised the show wasn't ready. Fortunately, logistics fell in their favour and the Hong Kong Players rescheduled the run, affording them several more weeks of rehearsal time.
'This is the most technically disciplined stuff that any of us have had to do,' says Bolton. To help the actors feel comfortable with the script, he used a variety of unconventional rehearsal techniques, such as having the actors rap and sing their lines, as well as recording the two male actors speaking their dialogue so they could listen to themselves outside of rehearsals.
Elting recalls the cast's initial frustration with Mamet's sometimes jarring, often cyclical dialogue during their first readings of the script. 'At first, we were frustrated, but once you hear it, you start to understand that this is the way people talk. He writes in a fractured way because these are fractured characters.'
'It's a challenge, but when you're in the scene and it's rolling, it feels right,' says Archibald.
'It's almost magical how the rest of it falls into place when the rhythms of language are maintained,' says Bolton.
Although set in the late 1980s, Bolton says the play's subject matter is as relevant today and Hong Kong audiences will identify with it.
'There are things about the play that are timeless, like ambition, betrayal, power plays and muddied relationships. For Hong Kong, the tension between making big bucks and going for the heart or spirit is topical.'
Elting says the play will prompt audiences to reflect. 'It makes you ask questions like, 'what kind of person am I? What kind of values do I have? What do I want in life and how far would I go to get it?''
The world Mamet paints is gritty, but the dialogue, loaded with expletives and insults, is a reflection of reality.
As Archibald says: 'The message of the play is that life's not always fair - we're just doing the best we can.'
Speed-the-Plow, Tue-Sat, 7.30pm, O2 Theatre, Fringe Club, $190 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288