Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Speed-the-Plow review (Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre)

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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]

29 responses to “Speed-the-Plow review (Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre)

  1. Saw it this evening. I wanted you to be wrong but you nailed it. The script is so grating and tired. Why dust it off at all?

  2. If the reviewer wants to comment on society at large then go for it – however this is a play, a play. If he was to review the play then it is entertaining, funny, relevant and a super vehicle for watching Rose Byrne in action. Like watching movies from different era it reflects the times of when it was written …. does the reviwer not watch and enjoy movies from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s on the basis that society has moved past the values that were the norm back then? The beauty of this play is that it highlights to us just how far we have come and yet it also reminds us that no doubt there is still relevance in those attitudes that we are yet to overcome. If you walk into the theatre looking for a reflection of todays norms then of course you will be disappointed however if you walk in looking for a vehicle to watch some of our country’s best talent live then you are in for a treat. Other reviewers seem to have nailed this, Ben alas is stuck in a timewarp commentary.

    1. I think you’ll find the Guardian’s reviewer had a similar take to Ben…A dated, sexist play not worth reviving, with a two dimensional female character.

      1. And I think if you read the likes of Limelight you’ll see exactly the opposite….. it is a comedy, it plays to the standards of the day which makes it funny and cringeworthy which is what we look for from a play – emotion and feeling.

        1. I’d recommend reading this piece, which has received an overwhelming response from women unhappy with how they’re being portrayed consistently by the companies they support:

          There are also reviews in the Australian, on and on suggesting that the sexism in Speed-the-Plow is a problem.

          I’ve yet to see a review from a woman which doesn’t find the gender politics of this production deeply disturbing. I think we should listen to the women saying so.

          1. Then Ben your review is in the wrong place if your concern about how women are portrayed in arts is your concern….. yours is political correctness of the worst kind. By your theory Rose Bryne is promoting sexism by participating in this play …… although you seem to have avoided commenting on Rose directly perhaps because the backlash would be significant.

          2. I try not to tell women what they should find demeaning, and I wouldn’t want to write criticism if I could not show concern when women or people from minorities feel demeaned by a work. I would never write criticism that ignores how a work sits in the sociopolitical context in which it is being presented. I think that sort of criticism is shallow and useless.

          3. Then Ben you are a social commentator, not a theatre critic. If you take your line further then movies/plays from the past should not be shown today because of the potential to offend – this goes against every principle of not only free speech but also the presentation and protection of the arts. In your world Gone with the Wind would never be shown again, Breakfast at Tiffany’s which is infinitely more cringeworthy than Speed the Plow would never see the light of day….. it is entirely appropriate that a play like Speed the Plow is being performed today, to criticise it based on a change in the standards of today from yesteryear misses the point completely.

          4. Michael: that a theatre critic cannot/should not view a work through a socio-political lens is ludicrous. You hold a narrow view of the role of the critic.

          5. Well Ben you are entitled to your opinion but this play is far from pointless and your view that there are “thousands” just like it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on any level but especially in the theatre. Again you miss the point that it is a play that highlights standards of the past when it was written and your approach is almost tantamount to saying that because some viewers find it “repugnant” that it shouldn’t be shown – in any world that is called censorship. I’d make a little suggestion that perhaps to try and sit down with Rose and express these views as she has clearly stated a different view from yours and in a real sense walks the talk behind it. Finally instead of believing that you are more concerned about the sociopolitical issues than others because they hold an different view than yours (apart from that being an elitist thought) I would say that opposite – by holding this play it actually demonstrates how far we have come and any society that tries to forget or remove its history on the basis of upsetting todays citizens has no ability to learn from the past.

        2. Actually JE I have no problem with Ben voicing his opinion through whatever lens he wishes – my point is that his social commentary shouldn’t be confused with his being a theatre critic – the best critics in the world articulate this clearly and even for this play if you wish to look at the reviews over the past few years it becomes obvious how to do this. As I have stated when you view it through that particular lens todays conditions do not invalidate the work at all, in fact it highlights the movement of society in a way that demonstrates the value continuing to put on productions like this – which is in contrast to Ben’s view which is that he thinks it is “pointless”, an astonishing view to hold.

          1. This production IS pointless. It’s not a great play, we’ve seen hundreds if not thousands just like it, it’s not a good vehicle for any of the actors, and its attitude towards women is repugnant to plenty of women who are seeing it.

            If you want a historical document to study and attempt to find something profound within, you can always read the script. I approach theatre as something much more alive than that.

            But there are certainly critics out there who are less concerned with the sociopolitical and broader cultural aspects of a work than I am. You’ll be quite disappointed in my work if you expect me to restrict my comments to the craft.

          2. Michael, I’m interested to know if you have suffered discrimination or disenfranchisement because of gender, race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic background, ableism…? Obviously, this is a personal question that some may not want to answer. I only ask because I’d like to know if there’s anything from the past (recent or otherwise) that you would deem unacceptable content in the theatre? The answer of course doesn’t have to restrict itself to what offends you because of discrimination done to you – people get offended all the time be various things, for whatever reason.

          3. JE I think we have all suffered from some form of discrimination in our lives haven’t we? I certainly do not subscribe to the theory that because I feel a certain way about a situation that it should be banned from the theatre or that it is pointless – surely the point of theatre is to evoke emotions in us? To mark this play down on the basis that it is “sexist” is a little like marking down a Tarantino movie on the basis that it is violent – I don’t like violence, I grew up in a violent household but not for one second of one day would I suggest that violent movies or plays should be banned. Going into Speed the Plow it is obvious what the play plays to – anyone who feels offended by that should opt out or walk out as is their right – to those that stay and enjoy the evening the play has served its purpose.

          4. Michael: “Going into Speed the Plow it is obvious what the play plays to – anyone who feels offended by that should opt out or walk out as is their right”
            Me: “…Or write a review outlining what they think the problems in the play are.”

          5. Michael you need to look more deeply into what you are saying. Criticism of any kind, even when purely formal, must rely on many disciplines. Sociology, psychology, philosophy and language to name a few. There is no ‘or’ relationship between social commentator and theatre critic. If the piece is being performed now, then any criticism that attracts a theatre going audience is the one that takes a current perspective. Historical criticism is a different process that must use different criteria. Audiences are generally not comprised of scholars who specialise in the period of the play. Was this late 20th century play, one of Mamet’s lesser works, transcendent? Did it speak to today’s audience? Forget your beef with the reviewer, read the comments. Or not. You may be best served by reading, ‘ … the best critics in the world’. Whoever they may be.

            Yet judgements of art change dramatically over time. The ignored and forgotten pieces of today may go on to become the most revered of all time. And this play is well on its way to proving it vice versa.

  3. Having read the reviews before attending this evening I was intrigued as to what the experience would be. Dated? Yes. Funny? Yes. Repugnant? Hardly. Pointless? Not according to the ovation at the end. The play has been revived a number of times since its Tony Award winning days on Broadway and over time it has dated to the point that it sits outside of our moral compass of today – which as Michael states in the longwinded posts above makes the play almost compelling viewing. The acting tonight was relaxed and on point. What a delight Ms Bryne is! To see her live on stage was a treat and she was well supported by her male counterparts. The general buzz leaving the theatre would indicate that it was money well spent. I hope we see more of Ms Bryne here in the future.

      1. All reviews have value, none are pointless, they each individually represent each persons bias, fears, hopes, views …… and that is my point.

  4. What a load of ‘dead white male’ nonsense. The play treats each character as having power, strengths, weaknesses and foibles, as we all do. What is also ignored is the fact that the play is not just about power plays in Hollywood, but is a deeply theological play about faith, hope, love, prayer, the apocalypse and God. A play for our times. But then, that’s not cool or politically correct.

    1. Well as an atheist I may have missed that as it didn’t strike me as conveying existential angst. I would have found it more satisfying if the female character actually got her own back in any real sense or had intellectual heft rather than merely looks-based power. It all seemed uninspiring and there were very very few laughs in the audience earlier this week. I would not recommend it. Not sure where you get off with the dead white male jibe. I’d take Shakespeare or Marlowe any time over this.

  5. I saw this play last night. If Mamet thinks he is critiquing the fast-talking, soulless businessmen of Hollywood, it played as if he was glorifying them. The female part is unsatisfying. Your review reflects my experience of this play and the STC production. Especially after seeing The Dream. I’m sick of plays presented with nothing to say. I’m sick of plays full of piss and shit and blood and assaulting sounds. And sick of plays which demean women and present a base view of the world and offer sensationalism for its own sake. (See shitonyourplay’s bingo card). I won’t be subscribing to STC again. Generally the direction insults the talent of the actors. Compared to Sport for Jove’s production of Antigone, which was creative, intelligent, theatrical and had something to say (and has lower ticket prices) I know where I will be turning for theatre experiences in future.
    Thankyou, Ben, for your review.
    Unless, of course, the production could be read as a critique of STC…

  6. I saw the play today and didn’t read any reviews beforehand, but Ben, your review echoes echoes exactly what my friend and I said after the performance. The play seems to celebrate outdated attitudes and it is not worthy of the performances of the actors in it. These are fine actors who deserve better material.

  7. To give comment on any interpretation on sexism, demeaning women, issues of god and power struggles gives justification for a play worthy of existence of which this is not. What absolute and utter rubbish. Saw it tonight and to be honest, it would’ve been more interesting if I watched Rose stand for there in silence for an hour and half. She is an absolute talent. For her to do something like this I can only assume she wanted to do someone a favour- maybe for her friend Cate Blanchett given her husband Andrew is the Director. There is no story, no script and no meaning. Written on the back of someone’s shitty day in Hollywood and shared over an evening drink – I can’t believe that this is still being executed globally since the 80’s. STC, you should be ashamed to host this. SMH, your reviews and integrity are highly sus.

  8. We travelled from interstate to see this play.
    We found it boring with a shallow story line. It was intellectually unsatisfying and just not very entertaining.
    The script was repetitive and made the quantum leaps in the storyline even less believable.
    At least dinner at Fratelli’s was as good as ever!

  9. My wife (47) and I (52) attended last night’s final performance. I was expecting an energetic and polished final night performance but instead it felt tired, poorly directed and very underwhelming. As a vehicle for the calibre of the actors I can’t determine whether it was the result of a script that has aged to the point of being irrelevant, that the production just couldn’t tease out character nuance or the comic potential, or that the actors were over it – perhaps feeling compromised by the rusted old vehicle they had been asked to ride in and/or the route they were asked to take. One of my most disappointing theatre experiences.

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