In 26 scenes over 84 minutes, Mamet’s semi-autobiographical story follows two thespians who share a journey on and off stage together in a fading small town rep. Jackson plays aspiring newcomer John while Stewart is the grandiose veteran Robert.
In real life, Stewart is a classically trained actor and Royal Shakespeare Company veteran who was seen in the West End last year in The Master Builder and who has become internationally famous for his sci-fi screen roles in Star Trek and X Men. Canadian-born Jackson is best known for his role in long-running American TV series Dawson’s Creek. A Life in the Theatre marks his adult professional stage debut.
During an exclusive half-hour discussion, the director and actors answered a variety of theatregoer questions, speaking openly about the play, the production and their own working relationships. Highlights from the discussion include the following.
On David Mamet
Posner: “The thing I find most interesting about Mamet is that the dialogue is so brilliantly challenging. You have to spend ages unravelling it, finding the rhythm and form, which is heightened and poetic in a lot of ways. It’s that demand that I enjoy.”
Stewart: “I saw American Buffalo at the National Theatre in the 1970s, and it blew me away. I’d never heard dialogue like it, a mix of music, poetry and the vernacular. And not like Pinter – I knew that because I’d just done a Pinter. After seeing that, I always hoped I’d do a Mamet play.”
Jackson: “The first thing is the language, even as a North American. The challenge of coming here and doing it in the home of theatre and the opportunity to make an ass of myself in another country was impossible to resist! The dialogue is poetic but very real, not flowery at all. It’s sparse and sparing and the challenge is to unlock it.”
On How to Learn Mamet Lines
Jackson: “Repetition, just going over and over it. There is a rhythm to it and you get to the point where it comes naturally. Usually, it is just the only possible word or sound that could come next and that is a testament to David Mamet.”
Stewart: “I don’t know how you do it. There is one ‘mmm’ I have to do and it comes out as anything but every night! I resent learning lines so much now. I feel that, at my place in my career, I shouldn’t have to learn. If we were in the 24th century on the Enterprise, there’d be a chip for this! It’s not as hard as Pinter, though. Michael Pennington is an old friend of mine. He saw me at lunch a few weeks before we started and said ‘I hear you’re doing Mamet - you’ll never learn it.’”
On the Accuracy of the Play’s Portrait of Backstage Life
Stewart: “I’m the only one who’s old enough to answer this question! Everything that happens has happened to me or I’ve watched it happen to another actor. It’s all accurate. I know you’re not meant to tell stories about royalty, but I’m going to break that rule, well sort of. Harold Pinter came to see one of the previews, and afterwards he came back to see me and said (in lamenting voice) ‘oh that dressing room, that dressing room’. He recognised it and all of us who have done theatre would recognise it. It’s authentic.”
On Performing ‘Bad’ Play Excerpts within the Play
Stewart: ”I found them the hardest bits to rehearse, and there’s one of them I’d have loved to have cut (the surgical scene) – now I’m happier to do it. They are very, very tricky to do because the continuity of being John and Robert gets broken. We made a deal early on to do those parts as truthfully as we could and not to send the plays up.”
On Their Own Relationship vs That of the Actors in the Play
Stewart: "It’s not comparable yet, but we’ve another three months to go! We do keep having conversations in my dressing room identical to the ones the characters have.”
Jackson: “It’s not possible for it to be the same because Patrick is not in the place Robert is in in his professional or personal life. We are not in the same place as them. This (working on stage) has been a lot of catch-up for me, because these guys know what they are doing. They have allowed me the space to make mistakes.”
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