2 May 2015
His whole body is a snarl of anger, resentment, pain. His shaved head suggests an innate meanness, but it is just show. His character is weak, lost, desperate to be loved and to be considered part of “the action”. His eyes astonish: one moment, almost lifeless, as if he is elsewhere thanks to drugs in his system or perhaps because he is mentally deficient; the next, they flash into life, presenting tough bravado or lucid hope.
His hands and arms seem almost disconnected, as he curves or twists them oddly, fascinatingly, a reflection of his confused, inarticulate demeanour. When, unexpectedly, he is assaulted, his jaw broken by the severity of the blow, you feel the pain as surely as if you had been yourself assaulted. As blood pours from his ears, and he expresses his fear about his state, he is both child and dead, lost soul – trembling, needing guidance and help, and someone on whom to cling.
This is Tom Sturridge, playing Bob in Daniel Evans’ revival of David Mamet’s 1975 play, American Buffalo, which is now playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre. Sturridge is an old school actor, thoroughly prepared, voice, body and mind all completely submerged in the parameters of the character he is playing. Nothing he does feels, sounds or looks wrong or misjudged. Everything he does works, brilliantly, to create an astonishingly in depth realisation of Bob. It is acting of the highest, most compelling, order.
The proof comes after the final blackout, when Sturridge and John Goodman are alone on stage as the lights return, waiting for Damian Lewis to join them for curtain calls. Sturridge slowly straightens his spine, stands his full height, adopts good posture and then smiles. There is, in that moment, no longer any trace of Bob. Now, there is just Sturridge.
John Goodman is also phenomenally good and the play is never better than in the moments where Sturridge and Goodman are locked in conversation, slowly peeling back the layers of their complicated relationship. Goodman succinctly conveys the quintessential smallness and abiding greed of the dreaming, scheming, petty criminal that runs the junk shop where the action of the play unfolds. There is a restless, savage unpredictability about him which is potent and resonant.
Watching him calculate the odds, consider what position to take, to decide to be persuaded to betray Bob, is absorbing and fascinating. Somehow, Goodman can combine the soulless look in his eyes with the power of the lines of his face, to produce an extraordinary portrait of a fearful, fearsome predator and victim. The duality in Goodman’s Don is exceptional.
On the surface, the play concerns petty crime and power plays. The true value of a buffalo nickel sold by Don vexes him. Card games where there might or might not be cheating, ruses concerning pig iron, and a convoluted plan to carry out a heist – these are the key ingredients used by Mamet to fashion his tale about three men whose lives intersect, whose past and futures are entwined, and for whom darkness, reticence, insincerity and deception are constant bedfellows. Why and how are these men friends? Who trusts who? And why?
Evans’ direction underlines the homosexuality sub-text and this works surprisingly well. Sturridge is very effective at hinting at his willingness to engage in sex with Goodman’s Don (in the second Act he hangs tantalisingly from the door all but offering himself to Goodman; you can almost see the sweat form on Goodman’s brow) and, for his part, Goodman shows clearly his interest in Sturridge’s needy Bob. The third member of the cast, Teach (Lewis) spits his derogatory comments about sexuality with such venom (“fruit” being a particular favourite), and insinuates himself between the others so determinedly, that his own sexuality also comes into question. These murky, intangible and (mostly) unspoken sexuality issues lurk in the dark with the other secrets and lies which the trio try to unearth or hide from each other.
Mamet’s play is all about the secrets and lies of manhood, so this emphasis is not unfounded. As Evans points out in the programme:
“Mamet says that his characters never mean what they say, but they always mean what they mean…He says that his characters never speak the desire, they only speak that which they think will bring about the desire.”
Highlighting the theme of the love that dare not speak its name, then, fits in admirably. (Sturridge’s character looks like he might be very sick, whether that be by drug abuse or AIDS, but the mark on his face seems to firmly suggest the latter.)
Mamet has always struck me as an overrated white male writer from America. His early successes, including this play, seem very much a product of their time, when the style of language and the rhythms of the dialogue were fresh, shocking and full of visceral vitality. They are very specific plays, about specific people and, often, a specific time. They don’t have either longevity or universality as fundamental attributes. Glengarry Glen Ross, for which Mamet won the Pulitzer, is the true exception.
Perceived wisdom is that Mamet’s dialogue needs to be delivered a particular way for it to attain full force. There is no need to debate that here, simply to note that Evans has eschewed such an approach. Sturridge, for the most part, speaks in phrases which are broken and angular, just as he is. Goodman, while capable of rapid fire delivery regularly, is also the master of the pause and contemplative, expressive pace. In the main, it is Lewis who carries the rapid-delivery torch, which suits Teach well and emphasises his invasive qualities.
Evans’ approach to the delivery of the text enlivens the Goodman/Sturridge sections, but partly compromises the long passages where Lewis is speaking. This is because time needs to pass for the ear’s adjustment to the more rapid fire delivery to be made. Curiously, though, it is the rapid-fire sections which, particularly in the first Act, seem very, very long. In the second Act, the fusion of styles seems to work more seamlessly, and Lewis’ drive adds to the brutal and uncompromising fracturing of the trio.
Of the three, it is Lewis who seems most obviously to be “acting”; he is playing Teach where Goodman and Sturridge are Don and Bob. He is more at ease in the second Act, but sections of the first are dogged by his accent issues, his playing to the audience rather than to Goodman, and a general sense of unease about the physicality of this quite specific 70’s type. He is at his very best when undermining Goodman’s confidence, either to ensure his betrayal of Sturridge or shaking his confidence about Fletcher, Don’s trusted, but unseen, accomplice.
Still, Lewis is dependable for shock value and his sudden bursts of ferocious madness, expressed in very physical ways, are electrifying. When the focus is on what he is doing, rather than what he is saying, Lewis is in excellent form. And with his sideburns and oddly coloured attire, he exudes 70’s grub.
The design, from Paul Wills, is excellent. There is a palpable sense of second-rate disappointment about every aspect of Don’s junk shop. Having various items (chairs, toys, bikes, the usual junk shop paraphernalia) hang from wires suspended above the shop, adds to the sense of clutter and oppression but also permanently suggests a sword of Damacles notion of consequence and judgment being just outside the periphery of the detritus filled world on which the trio stalk. The set is both familiar and unsettling – precisely right.
Evans has opted for the road not taken in delivering this vision of Mamet’s play. It’s bold and largely successful. It’s certainly much more successful than the recent West End run of Speed-The-Plow. Despite superb turns from Sturridge and Goodman, it remains unclear that American Buffalo deserves revivals outside of America, if anywhere.