It is the simple story of a man caught between good and evil, one that never seems to get old. It is the eternal experience of us all, no matter where or when in the annals of history we find ourselves. Bob is a Hollywood executive who has to choose between art and commerce, and in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, that relationship is a strictly dichotomous one. Art is good, commerce is bad, and like the devil and the angel who take up traditional residence on either sides of our minds, Bob finds himself caught in a tug-of-war between Karen and Charlie, each one neatly representing each side of the argument.
This basic premise is stretched out to fill a 90-minute play, however, it feels deficient, lacking in depth despite its thorough expositions on money, work and benevolence. Andrew Upton’s direction gives the show an engaging sense of momentum, although Mamet’s words are only occasionally resonant, almost as if philosophy is sacrificed in the effervescence and tempo of the presentation. We enjoy the dynamics between characters, and are titillated by the suspicious duplicity that may or may not colour their intentions. Ultimately, the audience is left with nothing fresh or inspiring, even though a barrage of noisy ideas seem to be thrown about on stage ad nauseam.
Production design by David Fleischer (lit by Nick Schlieper) does well in providing a visual focus ensuring that this intimate play does not get lost on a very large stage. Having said that, the overly bare set in Act Two contributes to certain awkwardness for both actors and somewhat slightly confusing for the audience.
Damon Herriman has a powerful start in the role of Bob, every bit the eighties corporate monster and womaniser, but is unable to sustain our interest as the character transforms. The play allows the secondary personalities to overwhelm Bob, while keeping narrative focus on his predicament. Even though the actor’s conviction is clear to see, it seems that there is little in the text that lets our leading man remain arresting after Act One. Karen is played by Rose Byrne, who brings surprising complexity, along with excellent comic timing and intellectual acuity to the production. Her interpretation of the ingénue is by far the most exciting element of the show, requiring us to pay close attention to all her purposeful nuances, while challenging prejudices as they pertain to female ambition, in this world of cutthroat business wretchedness. Charlie is a stereotypical entertainment desperado, performed by the imposing Lachy Hulme, who luxuriates in every opportunity for heightened tough guy drama.
Mamet’s writing has no room for grey areas. Our protagonist can only choose between good and evil, art and power. Their inability to recognise the realistic possibilities of negotiating between polarities, detracts from how we are able to identify with the story. We all live between black and white, having to make decisions that are never completely ideal, but most of us are able to find points of balance that are at least momentarily satisfactory. We all want our cake and eat it too, but it is this constant shifting of circumstances and choices that gives each day its corporeal vibrancy.