David Mamet wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, his brilliant play about cut-throat salesman, many years after he had a summer job in a Chicago real estate office where he sold worthless land in Arizona to elderly people. Similarly, Jonathan Pryce, who leads the cast in the play’s 25th anniversary West End revival, as Shelley Levene, the most desperate and most talkative of these sad shysters, is reactivating past experience. For when he was a student at RADA in the late 1960s, Pryce went cold-calling in the suburbs trying to off-load black velvet paintings to innocent customers.

And he was good at it. “As in the play,” he tells me in a break in rehearsals down by the river in Rotherhithe, east London, “we had a board of the top salesmen in the office, which was in Kilburn. And I was at the top of that board for quite a few weeks. Top salesmen got a good bonus. We went out in car-loads with all this terrible art work to Kent, or somewhere, divvied up the streets and started knocking on doors.

“In my patter, I’d say I was representing a group of young artists who wanted to get their work into people’s homes. Then I’d ask the suckers if they’d like me to come in and show them what a work of art would look like in their sitting room. In those days, people would invite you in. And I’d do my stuff. I made good money.”

No weak Lingk

Mamet’s play struck a chord with Pryce when he saw its premiere at the National Theatre in 1983 and he appeared as the callow James Lingk in the 1992 film in which Jack Lemmon played elderly, luckless Shelley (the cast also included Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris and Kevin Spacey). It was a stiffly competitive line-up, but Pryce was by no means the weakest Lingk.

“It’s a great play and it made a wonderful film. The film was rehearsed like a play – the restaurant scenes were shot in a Chinese restaurant in New York’s theatre district, and the office was a studio in Brooklyn – and I particularly enjoyed sitting with Pacino for a week while we did that opening scene. So when I was asked to be in this revival, it seemed right, especially taking on the Jack Lemmon role, a hard act to follow.

“It’s incredibly well written. People talk about director’s theatre. Well, this is definitely actor’s theatre. As Mamet himself says, it’s sufficient to say the words, preferably in the right order. But that still leaves lots of scope to relish the text and develop character.”

Pryce, who turned 60 this year, retains the wiry frame and watchful guardedness that he had at the start of his illustrious career well over 35 years ago. I singled him out as my “tip for the top” after his breakthrough with a Liverpool Everyman company that also included Julie Walters, Alison Steadman, Bill Nighy, Antony Sher and Kate Fahy, his “unmarried partner” and mother of their three grown-up children.

From classical to commercial

On stage and off, he has a pantherine presence with an edge of danger that has characterised his great stage performances from the skinhead audience-baiter Gethin Price in Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians in 1975 (he won a Tony on Broadway in the role) and a ghost-possessed Hamlet at the Royal Court in 1980, right through to the sinister Engineer in Miss Saigon in 1989, a sinuous, slyly semitic Fagin in Oliver! in 1994 and a post-Rex Harrison definitive Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady at the National and in the West End in 2001. Did Pryce have any regrets about veering from the “classical” path into such commercial fare?

Pryce fidgets with his casual grey shirt, picking at it with his long, expressive fingers. His eyes are steady. He’s not going to become too relaxed. We are sitting in a cramped little office. We don’t have a glass of water between us. I had suggested walking out to one of the riverside pubs. His lips suggested the start of a watery smile. We stayed put.

“I haven’t worked in the subsidised theatre for years. No one asks me any more at the National or RSC, apart from on My Fair Lady, but that was always going to be a commercial venture. I had a great acting role in Miss Saigon. It was a great piece of theatre. I wouldn’t have done it for two years, in London and New York, if I hadn’t loved it. And I love to sing. Mind you, the more you sing, the harder it gets.”

Most recently, of course, he fell in love with a goat in Edward Albee’s searing play about a marriage placed under threat by an unusual third party. Pryce played alongside his real-life partner Fahy in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, first at the Almeida, then in the West End, and also opposite Matthew Marsh, who is with him again in Glengarry Glen Ross. It was frightening to see his volcanic energy dissipating itself on a bizarre affection. Pryce is an actor who can give the impression of his innards being dissolved slowly in acid. In the best sense, he’s a truly harrowing performer.

He is also the missing modern link between Nicol Williamson and Michael Sheen, though he lacks the ruined majesty of the first and the elfin likeability of the second. But no one blisters and burns like Pryce can, and he has the wonderful Welsh vocal resources to convey that quality to every corner of the theatre.

Fortuitous phone calls

Pryce’s film career is substantial, too, with cult status for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and a Cannes Best Actor award for his deeply touching performance – maybe his best ever – as Lytton Strachey in Christopher Hampton’s Carrington (1997). Most recently on television, he has been another Sherlock Holmes for the BBC (partnered by his old friend Bill Paterson as Watson).

But this year has been filled, he says, with three fortuitous phone calls. The first was from George Clooney to spend three or four months with him in North Carolina filming Leatherheads, a romantic comedy set in the American football culture of the 1920s. Next up he filmed David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, a much under-rated play about love and addiction, for HBO, co-starring Uma Thurman and directed by Anthony Page. And now the Mamet. “Years don’t always pan out like this,” Pryce says without a hint of self-contentment.

Is returning to the Mamet the hardest of the three tasks? “Well, it’s difficult to learn because, as in life, it’s all half sentences. I’ve never learned anything in the past before going into rehearsal, but I thought I should learn this. But it was impossible in isolation. It’s all about conversation and inter-reaction with others. So it’s all going in now, and I’m really enjoying it, and working with everyone else.”

We stand up, shake hands and I leave as though my time is up. The interview is over, but I don’t think I’ve been sold a pig in a poke.

Glengarry Glen Ross opens on 10 October 2007 (previews from 27 September) at the West End’s Apollo Theatre. A longer version of this article appears in the October issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out this Friday in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!

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