Mamet’s play, ‘Boston Marriage’, performing at the Darlinghurst Theatre until the 24th of this month, is about seduction not sex, specifically seduction by deceit. It takes its name from an institutionalised form of cohabitation by women in the late Nineteenth century before women were granted suffrage. The play depicts two deliciously etched bitches with one thing on their mind. It’s not the same in each case, however.
Anna, played here by Di Smith, wants Claire and has even gone to the lengths of taking a paramour to enable her to keep her, but Claire, (Amanda Bishop) has grown tired of Anna and is after younger flesh and she want’s Anna to facilitate the assignation. How’s that for ‘no holds barred’?
It’s textual theme of course is sexual but it’s not about sex and is best realised in this performance when Claire stands downstage sans bolero top and muff gesturing with writhing outstretched hands. The pose sets in play a current of concealed rippling muscularity beneath the taught pale flesh of her arms and shoulders. It’s an image that quite quickens the breath. In that moment you realise why Anna is prepared to trade anything to keep her. It’s pure theatre; seeing is believing. Granted the play takes a while to get into its stride.
The set, unfortunately, did little to establish the style. There is also the moment of Claire’s entrance when you get the impression she’s checking the address rather than the change that has come over the place even though the words say something similar. It may well have been Director, Stephen Colyer’s intention to put the audience off balance but it takes a while to realign to the true situation.
The famous Mametic rhythm wasn’t in evidence until well into the second Act and Anna took a long while to find the appropriate shifts between berating and cajoling. For most of the first Act she hung somewhere in between which made it seem a little laboured. There was also the drift in accents from Anna’s Pymble vowels to Claire’s full London ‘toff’. Against both there was the intermittent well manicured Scot’s brogue of Catherine, the maid, played by Sara Grenfell. Granted the brogue is scripted as part of a running gag. Normally it doesn’t matter but given the specificity of the institution from which the name of the play springs it probably does here. The lighting cues also faltered at the end of Act 1, which unfortunately resulted in the effect of the montage being blurred
Having said all that it was still a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre. On the surface the plot is easy enough to follow even through the twists to the various character’s objectives. The pace is sustained and, in terms of Mamet’s own benchmark the actors ‘communicated the play to the audience (with) strong voice, superb diction, … supple, well proportioned (bodies), and a rudimentary understanding of the play’ " (True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, Mamet 1997). The dialogue was as crystal and sparkled with colourful invective.
Now comes the interesting part, given that Mamet doesn’t usually write this sort of play what did he have in mind when he conceived it? Firstly it’s a period piece. Apparently at the outset the ‘marriage’ was a convenient form of relationship, which allowed professional women to live in companionship without having to subject themselves to the servitude of marriage. It later took on a lesbian association after the suffragette movement started to have some success. It was painted as socially subversive. Probably this explains why Mamet chose the setting; an innocent institution painted darkly by vested interests out to protect their status.
More interesting still is Mamet’s selection of the Comedy of Manners for its style. Stephen Colyer suggests it is more in the nature of a Drawing Room Comedy and that it was most likely prompted by an admiration of Wilde’s witty epigrammatic style. Certainly most commentaries on the play hear echoes of Gwendolyn and Cecily in the dialogue. Mamet’s long standing colleague, Felicity Huffman, suggests it was inspired by a desire to have a successful earlier collaboration in Dangerous Corner ‘hang out again’. But this underestimates Mamet’s commitment to his craft. The famous Mametic rhythm, commonly referred to as Mametspeak, actually sprang from intense workshops with a range of other actors so it seems little he does is arbitrary or accidental.
He may have wished to simply show that he could quip with the best but clever repartee is not exactly what the ‘Drawing Room Comedy’ is about. It’s precedent is in Congreve’s Restoration ‘Comedy of Manners’, described as witty and intellectually remote from reality concerned with the correction of social absurdities (The OCT/Hartnoll). It permeates through Congreve, Sheridan and Wilde. It might be comedy but it’s comedy with bite. While there is certainly an echo of Wilde in the dialogue its not Gwendolyn and Cecily we are hearing but Lord and Lady Windermere for it is ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ that ‘Boston’ draws on not ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Even more apparent than echoes of the dialogue are the parallels in themes within the two works, its almost as if Mamet is mirroring the ‘Fan’ through a distorted glass, there’s no point satirizing the past unless it is by way of applying it to the present. The play is therefore not what it seems any more than anything in it is what it seems.
In the ‘Fan’ the textual theme is resolved in the idea roughly paraphrased as I will be more open with you / I will trust you more. The sub textual theme in the ‘Fan’ being the lie of hypocrisy which is resolved earlier when Lady Windermere corrects Erlynne’s suitor in describing Erlynne as ‘a good woman’ as opposed to ‘fair’. The corresponding textual denouement in ‘Boston’ is I will be there for you (but of faithfulness) that may be beyond me, again a rough paraphrase and in terms of sub text it is not the lie of the hypocrite that concerns Mamet but the lie of the charlatan. Things are no longer what they seem so he conjures up the image of Hanuman, the Hindu god of learning, with the reference to the Tarzier monkey. Catherine repeats it again and again as she tries to get the other pair’s attention, ‘It’s a monkey’, she cries.
The significance of Hanuman’s is his tendency to be beguiled or duped so the denouement of the sub text is in Anna’s lines suggesting the planned séance. Claire describes it as ‘the least plausible explanation of human behaviour I have ever heard’ but Anna nonetheless remains convinced ‘Men live to be deceived, they would rather be deceived than fated’ and in regard to the cheated wife ‘she must succumb to her curiosity, it is the weakness of the sex’. It develops on from there but to analyse it further would be to give the game away.
‘Boston’ is therefore not about sex but deception by tricksters and spin-doctors, those who would gladly tell you black is white, for a price. Anna and Claire are to discover that the real cost isn’t on the price tag, they only get to discover it when it’s too late. So does Catherine but in a rather more conventional way. Maybe that was Mamet’s point; self delusion and our weakness for it is the true narcotic of our age. Here he may have heard another echo, that of Faust; they are the sins of the flesh.
Presented by Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Gaiety Theatre
in association with Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras 2007
By David Mamet
Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre Company 19 Greenknowe Avenue Potts Point
Dates: Thursday 8 February to Saturday 24 February 2007
Times: Tuesday to Saturday @ 8pm and Sunday @ 5pm. Saturday matinees @ 4pm on Saturday 17 and Saturday 24 February.
Tickets: $30 Adult, $25 concession and $20 subscribers; $20 Preview Wednesday 7 February @ 8pm - phone bookings only
Bookings: 8356 9987 or online at www.darlinghursttheatre.com
For further information on Gaiety Theatre: www.gaietytheatre.com.au