Not Just a Blonde Wizard
The Economist, 31 July 2003
Forget the play, go for the acting
YOU have to hand it to Kenneth Branagh: he does nothing by halves. In his last outing on the London stage, over a decade ago, he played Hamlet in a full four-hour-plus staging of the play by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, he is back and playing another fearsomely complicated character, an enraged Manhattanite called Edmond, whose name gives the play its title.
David Mamet's work, running a scant 75 minutes, is short enough to fit into "Hamlet" three times over. Yet it is scarcely less concerned with big themes—there is much talk of signs, as in human destiny and fate—and large-scale displays of emotion. And as he did with Hamlet's great Dane, Mr Branagh gives the degraded Edmond his all. If only the play, now in revival at the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium, returned the compliment.
Partly, the problem is one of venue. A play that is implicitly about claustrophobia is oddly served in the vast reaches of the Olivier, the largest of the National's three spaces. In its London debut in 1985 at the Royal Court's studio-sized Theatre Upstairs, the play throbbed with the nervy energy that comes with feeling as if the theatre space itself were closing in around you. As reconceived this time by Edward Hall, an episodic play benefits from countless scene changes, some of them quite clever, and from a cast of 20 of the sort that only the heavily subsidised National Theatre can these days afford. But the effect dissipates the potential impact of a play that now looks as if it is having an awful lot of stuff thrown at it. "Edmond" may once have seemed punishing; suddenly it looks oddly puny.
Nor has time necessarily been kind to Mr Mamet's scabrous vision of a New York populated by hookers, junkies, and sodomites, all of whom victimise the increasingly abject, angry Edmond—or become his victims in return. Two decades on from its off-Broadway premiere, "Edmond" isn't shocking as much as simply posturing.
All credit, then, to Mr Branagh, who lays himself emotionally bare—and, at one point, physically too, appearing naked from the waist down during an extended scene. While Mr Mamet in no way sets up the character's hairpin shifts in mood (barely speaking one minute, Edmond is hurling imprecations and abuse the next), Mr Branagh animates every fulminating step in Edmond's fall from grace, including a redemptive jail-cell encounter that's a little overripe.
For the star's central performance alone, "Edmond" deserves to be the summer's sell-out, though a word of warning: for all its avowed attention to pain, the play is actually pretty silly.