Speed-the-Plow | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft – Lachy Hulme and Damon Herriman. Cover – Rose Byrne, Damon Herriman and Lachy Hulme. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti

One of the most prolific and idiosyncratic writers of both stage and screen for several decades, David Mamet’s work roils with the clash of egos, insecurities and the ephemeral nature of interpersonal power to create combustible works of riveting, pulse-quickening drama. More impressively, Mamet typically achieves this onstage with relatively little in the way of complex plots per se, in much the same manner whereby the Hollywood producers in this play assert that any movie concept can be pitched in a single sentence. Rather, Mamet uses his famously intense and stylised dialogue to dramatise fierce character conflicts, which are almost always concerning some expression, fundamentally, of power.

Male power, and certainly male egos are very much Mamet’s stock in trade, sometimes to the point of controversy. It would be quite an understatement to say that his muscular, frenetic dialogue is veritably dripping with testosterone, almost to the point of overdose. Which is why it seems perhaps slightly crass or disingenuous that the entire marketing campaign for this production is a simple headshot of star Rose Byrne. For a play that is a three-hander told in three scenes, Byrne plays a role which, although very much the crux of the plot, is largely absent from two-thirds of the play, and is overshadowed by her two male co-stars almost throughout.

Not to be naïve, of course – with her Hollywood cred Byrne is the “name” attraction that gets bums on seats for this production, and the Sydney Theatre Company is, by this point, well practiced in the art of getting “Aussie stars done good” to make at least one of their productions per year into a hot ticket. And when one is employing very fine actors to make good theatre, there is nothing wrong with that, even if using their face as advertising, devoid of any indication of the play in question’s content, may seem a touch mercenary.

But could that, in fact, be the point?

Because naïveté thrust into the collision of art and commerce is, after all what Speed-the-Plow is about. The instigating incident of the plot concerns one film producer presenting his long-time colleague-come-superior with the good fortune of unexpectedly netting an expression of interest from a major movie star. The proposed film they could then co-produce would thus make them personally very rich, despite cynically having very little interest in the subject matter or artistic quality of the potential product. It would be quite an irony if it wasn’t an intentional wink for the STC to use a play with such a star-vehicle plot premise as a star vehicle theatre production for a home-grown Hollywood success story, by marketing the play around little else than the fact that she is in it, effectively regardless of the content. Perhaps that’s giving them too much credit for meta-ironic marketing… or maybe not.

Because on a similar level, the play’s art vs. commerce theme of the entertainment industry’s existential conflict (or at least, the existential conflict that can befall someone working in it) has further real-world echoes in the staging of this play, as this is an excellent production of an intimate drama which is almost wholly unsuited to its cavernous venue. Again, not to be naïve, because the reasons are obvious why this production is playing at the Roslyn Packer and not at Wharf 1 – the previously invoked bums on seats. If you can sell a theatre production on the basis of an actor who has become well known on American film and television, you naturally want to put them in the venue that has the largest seating capacity to exploit. Not that we should begrudge theatre companies from making money, and this is by no means anything new for the STC, as many plays starring Cate Blanchett and/or Hugo Weaving which have filled this space over the years will attest.

The issue, rather, is whether this play, or at any rate this production, is mismatched for its venue, being a tightly dialogue-driven three-hander, as compared to the more elaborate, scenic productions with larger casts such as Gross und Klein, A Streetcar Named Desire or Uncle Vanya, to name but a few. If any three-hander so modest in its action were going to fill this large proscenium designed to house musicals and epics, the blistering dialogue and volcanic energy of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow would certainly be a bold contender. Yet there does feel something perverse about erecting a small naturalistic office set in the middle of so much surrounding dead space on this considerably larger stage.

All this grousing about theatre politics aside, is the production any good? My word yes. Mamet’s play harnesses the initial macho posturing of its two movie producer characters and then artfully pivots into the story of one of them attempting to seduce his temporary secretary (as part of a callous bet with his colleague), only to find himself plunged into a kind of rapid-onset midlife crisis of self-doubt over the value of his work. The social worth of churning out lowest-common-denominator mainstream pap becomes suddenly thrown into stark relief when the secretary passionately advocates that he greenlight the adaptation of an extremely un-marketable esoteric novel he had delegated her to read, with no expectation of ever seriously considering it, chiefly as a ploy to have her come to his house after hours.

This mousy secretary, with whom he becomes unexpectedly enraptured, is a strange blend of potential profundity and the aforementioned naiveté, and the intended seduction is turned on its head. Yet this is not a traditional power-play of sexual politics, even though sex and politics are part of it. She is not a sexual manipulator, or at least not in the callous or ambitious way that the producer’s astonished and enraged colleague accuses her of being the following day when confronted with his superior’s apparent personality backflip. What we see instead is a nuanced and blackly humorous tug-of-war on this man’s soul between the two other characters who want him to either chose the easy, obviously bankable option, or take a dubious artistic risk potentially ruinous to his career.

Despite much discussion of “purity” and “doing good”, Mamet’s bleak cynicism does not present either option as clearly superior – the old friend/colleague is a selfish bastard clearly looking out of his own interests… which doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the ramifications of such a decision, while the secretary/love-interest is a naïve babe-in-the-woods amongst the wolfpack of Hollywood… which doesn’t mean she’s insincere or incorrect in championing arthouse fare.

Mamet’s venomous even-handedness comes across best in the fact that, once you strip away the complex interpersonal politics underpinning the tugs in either direction, he makes both propositions seem equally unpalatable at face value. The star-vehicle moneyspinner movie does sound like a pandering, schlocky, probably even potentially racist piece of drivel, while conversely all the extracts read aloud from the artsy novel do come across as utterly pretentious waffling nonsense. Choosing the qualitatively better material is never really the issue at stake.

But even when you have quality material such as this play, any small-cast production is only as good as its actors. Fortunately Andrew Upton has ably directed some truly powerhouse performances out of this fine trio. The previously much-discussed starpower of Rose Byrne is well-utilised in this seemingly smaller, less in-your-face role, yet her character is conversely the lynchpin of the story. She brings a quiet and very tangible credibility to this slightly opaque character who is both more and less idealistic that she initially appears, and more than makes up for any of the role’s potential shortcomings on the page.

Damon Herriman is also excellent as the central contested producer, who has the most extensive character arc from a deeply unlikable Hollywood yuppie awash with glib white-collar braggadocio to a wide-eyed introvert and finally an almost broken man in the throes of an identity crisis. Herriman brings a sympathetic edge to perhaps the play’s most challenging character in some regards, as his rather dramatic transformation leaves us intrigued to ponder what emotional backstory may have led him to such a position of power whilst being so unexpectedly vulnerable.

It cannot be skirted around, however, that despite having two extremely capable co-stars, the runaway scene-stealer of this production is Lachy Hulme. Despite being entirely absent for the middle scene, he dominates the play with his startlingly good performance in this larger-than-life yet all-too-credible role of the repulsively ambitious and virulently macho second-banana producer, who brings in and later has to fight for the mainstream star-vehicle movie project. He is a progressively repellent yet also immensely fun character, consumed with petty jealously, lust for power and prestige, every “joking” and “friendly” barb to his old workmate shot through with undertones of sincere venom and years of seething resentment. He is the very embodiment of this type of late 1980s “greed is good”/“I’ll get what’s mine” ethos of self-fulfillment, gleefully at the expense of others.

Hulme is shaping up to be one of the finest actors of his generation. Best known for star-making turns on television, he is a truly transformative actor, equally at home in broad comedies and full-blooded dramas. How he manages to completely embody such disparate roles from comical doctors, to national icon Kerry Packer, to one of Mamet’s portraits of hyperventilating machismo, with seemingly effortless chameleonic veracity is astonishing, and no small feat for a man of his size and rather distinctive appearance.

As one of Mamet’s classic plays, Speed-the-Plow was always likely to be a hot ticket for STC, and star-casting certainly sealed the deal. But it is nice to be able to report that the hype is not undeserved, as this is a truly electric production of a highly engrossing and darkly funny play, even if the real standout star may not be the one on the poster.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
by David Mamet

Director Andrew Upton

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
Dates: 8 November – 17 December 2016
Tickets: $116 – $84
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Most read Sydney reviews

Like champagne that’s lost its chill, life can lose its thrill.

Frilly, flimsy and flippant, focusing on frivolity,  the serious business of office politics,...

Suspense and surprise go south in North by Northwest, substituted with cheesy cheer east of Edam.

Infectiously entertaining and rivetingly alive, Wayside Bride is a boldly embroidered quilt...

The lights go down. The cicadas scream. The lights come up and we wait for the play to begin....