It’s the 80s and the air is thick with money; the promise of endless American economic growth just recently cut down by a recession. But the greed is still palpable and it’s gaining momentum amongst the desperate Chicago real estate agents of David Mamet’s imagination.
Written in Mamet’s customary stylised realist dialogue, Glengarry Glen Ross is a quick glimpse into the lives of (once) high-rollers as they struggle to regain their footing in a failing economy. As sales continue to falter, some of the agents turn to classic hard-sell tactics of old while others think theft might be faster. While the speaking is fast, the pacing is slow as the characters circle around the same worries again and again, telling repetitive stories in dense jargon that are difficult to follow and string together across the two days the script covers.
Director Louise Fischer leans in to the alienating atmosphere of the script to develop hard characters who butt up against each other with force and slim motivation. The interest of this production is less in the who-dun-it of the office robbery and more as an exploration of the types of people who work in and perpetuate these toxic work environments. The appeal is voyeuristic and walks the line between disgust and admiration reminiscent of films like the Wolf of Wall Street or Margin Call; think gutter gossip plus money plus power.
Tom Bannerman’s set design was dynamic and well-suited to the audience’s voyeurism, especially in the first half where the cast sat in private booths around a Chinese restaurant. The multi-levelled flooring and beam-like lighting structure transformed effortlessly into an office space over which the characters could scurry through power struggles and confrontations. At times the lighting design by Michael Schell felt overly Broadway-esque with a reliance on spots to narrow the large performance space but Glenn Braithwaite’s sound design kept the action firmly in the 80s.
As far as the scheming agents go, Hannah Raven was a thrilling Dave Moss as she concocted a plan with her pushover workmate George (Andrew Simpson). Her control of the demanding dialogue was deft and it was a shame to see so little of her over the whole play. At the same time Oliver Burton’s Ricky Roma was slippery but consistently smarmy which made him a very convincing “successful” businessman. His dynamic with Shelley Levene (Mark Langham) as the mentee and mentor was a central point of humanity that served to darken the desperation of Levene even more. Overall the cast were brazen and brash, maintaining the romanticised image of power behind closed doors.
It’s this romanticisation in fact that calls to question the staging of a play like Glengarry Glen Ross in 2021, some forty years after its heyday. On the one hand, the script is incredibly out-dated for its liberal use of racial slurs and homophobia. But even if those were removed or rewritten, which they weren’t in this staging, the politics don’t stand up to scrutiny. Glengarry Glen Ross is about powerful, wealthy white men and the lengths they will go to in order to hold on to their power. Casting white women in some of these roles but maintaining their male characterisations is not adequate to disrupt, interrogate, or dismantle the world that this play upholds. It feels particularly out of touch for a historically activist theatre like New Theatre to stage such a play in the wake of the Women’s March 4 Justice and the roaring discussion Australia is having about power, violence against women, and the institutions, or workplaces, that allow that violence.
Glengarry Glen Ross fails to speak to a contemporary audience who is still reckoning with the harm caused by powerful white men.
Glengarry Glen Ross is running at New Theatre from March 16th – April 10th
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