In a real estate office in Chicago, the salesmen are pitched against each other in a cut-throat competition. Close the deal and you’ve won a Cadillac; blow the lead and you’re f...ed. In a world of high stakes and hard sell, these men will do anything, legal or otherwise, to sell the most. Glengarry Glen Ross had its world premiere at the National Theatre in 1983 and was subsequently produced on Broadway and adapted, by Mamet, for a 1992 film.
While Jonathan Pryce was unable to attend the Q&A last Thursday, the rest of the seven-strong company – Aidan Gillen, Paul Freeman, Matthew Marsh, Shane Attwooll, Tom Smith and Anthony Flanagan* - were on hand along with director James Macdonald. The discussion was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock.
Glengarry Glen Ross started previews on 27 September 2007 at the Apollo Theatre, where it’s booking until 12 January 2008. *The press performance, originally scheduled for this Wednesday 10 October 2007, has been postponed until Friday following the withdrawal of Anthony Flanagan, who has now been replaced by Peter McDonald (See Today’s Other News).
For more photos and feedback on last Thursday’s event, visit our Outings Blog. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On why it’s a good time to revive the play
James Macdonald: If these guys were around now, they’d be selling sub-prime mortgages. The story doesn’t goes away and the whole message of the play – that life is about selling, that life is about the deal, life is about what you can put over on the other guy or the other person – is about the world we live in. I’m amazed listening night after night that it really hasn’t dated at all. The only thing that’s different is the telephone, the technology. The heart of the play is still absolutely with us … (We didn’t consider changing the setting to today because) I think it is a period thing, although it’s interesting because Mamet, when he wrote it, was remembering a time when he was a student or had just graduated and he worked in a real estate office and that would have been much earlier, the late Sixties, early Seventies. In a way, he’s referring to an older time and the play obviously reflects back to Death of a Salesman and an older era still. In a way, it’s an argument with that culture and an older generation of plays.
On British theatre’s appreciation of Mamet & American drama
Matthew Marsh: I did a play last year by another American writer. I think it’s just very very difficult to get new plays on in New York, which is the centre of the American theatre world. So that play was also picked up by the National. I think there are just a few more opportunities over here for an unknown writer to get their work on.
Paul Freeman: I was speaking to a bunch of American actors who live here and work here all the time when I knew I was going to do this. They said that they would love to have the opportunity to do this play, but they did appreciate that English actors had a different attitude towards this writing than they did. They suggested that American actors are rather reverential towards it and do a lot of mining in the parts and in the dialogue. They said we’re rather better at the energy and the speed of the piece – which I took to be a compliment.
Aidan Gillen: This is the third Mamet play I’ve done. The first was a play called the water engine at Hampstead theatre and I did American Buffalo in Dublin this year at the Gate. And I’m Irish. I am attracted to his writing. As far as contemporary American playwrights go, he’s one of the best. The dialogue is exciting and fun to perform.
On accents & getting the language right
James Macdonald: I actually asked David Mamet, what do we do about Chicago? And his advice was, ignore it. It’s a weird accent that would be very hard for an actor to do and would only make it harder for an audience to hear the play. Our dialect coach – Joanne Washington who is brilliant – says the thing about this play is that the rhythm is so Chicago that you don’t actually have to do the sound of Chicago. It sounds Chicago anyway because Mamet’s rhythm is so specific to that city.
Matthew Marsh: It took me longer to learn than normal and it’s to do with the cut-off sentences because you need to know what you’re going to say in a cut-off sentence even though you never express it. So you’re leaping from one unfinished thought to another unfinished thought and it’s quite tricky to learn.
Paul Freeman: We’ve all tried very hard to be precise as we possibly can and that’s difficult because it goes at such a speed. And we’re still working towards that, being as precise as possible. Given that, once we’re on top of certain scenes, it is possible to elongate or shorten the pauses. But apart from that, there’s no improvisation – unless something goes badly wrong.
James Macdonald: The fantastic thing about this play is it’s about selling, and these guys are selling the language. It’s about everything you can do with the use of language to put one over on someone else, to seduce someone else. Apart from being brilliant in a play and something that we recognise in life, it’s absolutely at the heart of acting as well. Acting is nothing else but putting something over on the audience. It’s so essentially theatrical, this sense of the play.
On links with Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman
Shane Attwooll: Wasn’t this called “Death of a Fucking Salesman” originally, wasn’t it? There’s a desperation in the Willy Loman character and also in Shelley Levene. That’s sense that they were a wonderful salesman at one time and now they can’t compete.
On the salesman’s psyche
Matthew Marsh: the thing about the viciousness is that their lives have changed because the rules of the game have changed. Murray and Mitch have created this contest and two of them out of four are going to get sacked within the next couple of days. So they really are fighting for their lives – they’re getting on, how are they going to make a living (if they lose this job)? So there is a desperation there. And I think you get a sense in the play of the change, that ten years ago things were different. Shelley goes on about whoever bought a meal when I was a plush. You know when times are good it’s (snaps fingers), come on yeah, let’s go have a drink. That’s the background. But now because of the new Eighties kind of philosophy of the marketplace, they’re all having to scratch at each other to try and survive.
Aidan Gillen: It’s dog-eat-dog, that’s the environment, it’s vicious. That’s real estate, not that I have anything against estate agents.
Paul Freeman: We did have a man from the Carphone Warehouse’s flagship shop. He came and talked through his life and how they worked in this enormous shop in Oxford Street. It was pretty terrifying I thought. But it gave us a very good insight.
Aidan Gillen: But we’re not all based on Carphone Warehouse.
On differences between the play & the film version
Paul Freeman: I hadn’t seen the film until we were doing this. After a few weeks, I thought, well I feel confident enough now to see it, and I was rather disappointed. I think the play is an extraordinarily tight piece of writing, the structure of it is phenomenal, it’s surprising and yet at the same time you’re taken into this world that you know nothing about when the curtain goes up and within a few pages, you start to understand, you’re educated into this world that you had no idea about. The film is not about that, the film becomes about performances. It’s not a critique of capitalism, which I think the play is.
Aidan Gillen: I saw (the film) ages ago. As far as film adaptations of plays go, I think it was pretty good and better than a lot. But I think it’s a better play than a film.
James Macdonald: I don’t think the play needs it (the film’s scene where Alec Baldwin gives his “always be closing” motivational speech). I can see why they put it in the film. But the play is so pure. You have three scenes in the restaurant – bam, bam, bam – and then you’re in the office. It’s so neat as a structure. Where would you put Alec? It doesn’t work. You’d have to rejig it quite a lot.
On the number of expletives in the dialogue
Matthew Marsh: Just for your benefit (to the theatregoer who said he enjoyed all the swearing in the play). If you go to Myspace, you can get the fuck version of GG the film. They just edit all the fucks together, it lasts for about three minutes. It’s really funny. The Big Lebowski is good as well.
Paul Freeman: I only have three words in the whole piece, which is nothing compared to everybody else!
For more photos and feedback on this event, visit our Outings Blog.