Reviews, Stage, Theatre Speed-the-Plow review (Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre) By Ben Neutze | ★★★★★ ★★★★★ Has anybody ever been surprised to discover that high profile Hollywood executives care first and foremost about bums on seats? Was it a shock, even in the late 1980s when playwright David Mamet wrote his film studio satire, Speed-the-Plow, to learn that the movie industry, by and large, has no interest in art? Of course, that basic knowledge doesn’t prevent a play about that curious corner of the world known as Hollywood from being a compelling examination of personal and sexual power, and the tensions between art and commerce. But almost three decades after its premiere, Speed-the-Plow feels flaccid. Bobby Gould (Damon Herriman) has just been promoted to head of productions at a major Hollywood studio, and is in the process of moving into a swanky new office. Suddenly, in swings an old friend and colleague Charlie Fox (Lachy Hulme), with huge news: he’s got a major star onboard for a big, dumb movie, sure to be a box office hit, and wants Bobby to green-light it. It would be a big coup for both, but particularly for Charlie. At the same time, Bobby is just getting to know his attractive new temporary secretary, Karen (Rose Byrne), a naive, clumsy, but intelligent and passionate woman. She’s given an “arty” book that’s crossed Bobby’s desk, and asked to give it a “courtesy read” and report back if it shows promise as source material for a new movie. Director Andrew Upton has pulled together a clear-eyed if not particularly fiery production. It doesn’t have quite the sharpness it needs to succeed, and David Fleischer’s cold and strangely claustrophobic set design doesn’t help to draw the audience into the action. Rose Byrne is obviously the main attraction, stepping into a role originated by Madonna and played, in the years since, by Lindsay Lohan and Alicia Silverstone. Byrne certainly doesn’t disappoint: it’s a well-measured, funny, and very consistent performance, even if she has nowhere near enough stage time to trace a proper character arc. But as the secretary who finds transformative strength (before being put back in her box), Byrne is perfectly cast. Damon Herriman turns in a very impressive performance as Bobby. It’s a relatively contained role, but he’s perfect within those limitations, tracing his downfall as he starts to ask tough questions of himself. But neither the writing nor the production manage to rise to emphasise that Bobby is on the cusp of a seismic shift, which should be at the absolute centre of this narrative. Lachy Hulme is mostly fine as Charlie — he has an intensity and an imposing presence, but the performance doesn’t have quite the focus or clarity it could. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Hulme is one of this country’s great actors, so it’s a surprise to see him struggle to find his groove. While Bobby and Charlie are generally well-written, complex and fleshy characters, Karen isn’t the most inspired role. Byrne certainly does her best, but the character never becomes more than a device for Bobby’s development, swinging between womanly stereotypes. Of course, Bobby and Charlie are hostile towards Karen and eventually entirely demeaning and vile. It’s a brutal industry, and these two know how to play the game. There are certainly great plays to be written about toxic, sexist environments in different industries — to Sydney Theatre Company’s credit, they staged such a play last year — but it’s not enough to show women being undermined, abused, and reduced to the boxes men put them in. Not in 2016. It’s not enough to argue that this play is merely reflecting the realities of the deeply misogynistic world it represents. It’s not enough to expose the kind of “locker room talk” between men which Donald Trump’s now infamous, horrid comments are apparently a part of, and just leave it at that. It’s not enough to say that this play exposes ugly and degrading attitudes for what they are. Because ultimately all of what’s done on stage is in service of just another white, middle class man’s big moral dilemma. The kind of dilemma which, if you’ve ever seen a play in Australia, you’ve probably already seen teased out on stage. Speed-the-Plow isn’t necessarily an overtly sexist work, but it’s grating, numbing, and even infuriating when you remember that it’s part of a theatre culture which sidelines women’s voices so consistently. In the end, you’re just disparaging women on stage to tell yet another man’s story. How does this play keep getting revived? It’s not particularly exciting and its insights are barely there; it’s astonishingly shallow for a play that’s held in such high regard. It was written about many of Mamet’s own experiences with the studio system, but its take on that system seems more like one from a person peering into an office window than somebody who’s a cog at the centre of the room. Obviously, being Mamet, it has snappy, often impressively witty dialogue, and very neat plotting. It’s a technically secure piece of writing, but it feels mostly pointless in 2016. Its meditations on power, relationships and art are too transparent and obvious to take hold. What does it tell us that we don’t already know? What does it make us feel about the world that we don’t already feel? This production is a waste of talent. Let’s just hope Byrne returns to Sydney soon in a work more deserving of her skills and effort. [box]Speed-the-Plow is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until December 18. Featured image by Lisa Tomasetti[/box] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Ben Neutze Ben Neutze is Deputy Editor of Daily Review. He has previously written for Time Out Sydney, The Guardian Australia and Limelight Magazine.