A play defined by claustrophobia, David Mamet’s short, ostensibly shocking “Edmond” spills across the National’s capacious Olivier stage in one of the more eccentric programming choices at this address in recent years. With Kenneth Branagh taking the title role in his return to the London stage after more than a decade away (and his first National gig), the 75-minute production has a bona fide star to act as box office bait, while the ongoing allure of the National’s £10 Travelex season does the rest.
But while one applauds director Edward Hall’s attempt to breathe epic life into a text first seen in London in 1985 in a studio-sized version — directed by Richard Eyre — at the Royal Court, it’s impossible not to feel this is the wrong approach for a not especially wise play, which will take every ounce of Britain’s ever-prevalent Mamet-mania to sustain its early status as a hit.
Or maybe the event’s real catnip is the presence center-stage of Branagh, whose superb Richard III last year at the Crucible Theater, Sheffield, hinted at a maturity and gravitas from this actor that wasn’t always there before. As the would-be Olivier of the 1980s, Branagh, then in his 20s, had technique to burn, as often as not divorced from feeling. But with the publication of his autobiography (!) now some 13 years behind him, the occasional smugness of the ascendant star has been supplanted by a stockier, burlier performer who — as we saw in last year’s Harry Potter film — is capable, much to our surprise, of having a chuckle at himself. And in “Edmond,” even standing with his back to the audience, Branagh never ceases to take the offensive, turning Mamet’s paranoiac fantasia into an acting showpiece.
One can see the appeal, in a way, of “Edmond” to its vaunted Shakespearean lead, since Mamet’s doomed 37-year-old Upper West Sider has an obsession with signs and portents — as well as a talent for murder — that recalls no one as much as Macbeth. (As if to complete the circle, that very tragedy was most recently revived in London last fall by director Hall.) In its specifics, however, the play trawls the brutal, bruising landscape of New York, pre-Giuliani, an environment where one step off the yuppie treadmill sends one on a downward spiral into a world of hookers and hustlers, homophobia and racism, with an eleventh-hour scene of sodomy to boot.
It is Edmond, though, who precipitates his own freefall, announcing in a deliberately staccato, affectless voice to his wife that she no longer interests him, “spiritually or sexually.” As Tracy-Ann Oberman’s drolly enraged spouse is reeling from her husband’s admission, Edmond hits the road, his early formality (“Would it offend you if I wore a rubber,” he asks early on in his netherworld odyssey) quickly giving way to a savage Vesuvius of rage. Unprompted by anything beyond Mamet’s penchant for playing puppeteer, Edmond before long is hurling around words like “nigger” and “coon,” his bile matched by Glenna (Nicola Walker), an actress who gets her own matching rant about “faggots” — as if any actress, especially in New York, would be so inclined!
But realism is hardly “Edmond’s” point, notwithstanding the play’s unabashed desire to speak to the very real, simmering societal tensions that American drama hardly ever goes near. In its own way, though, an English drama like Patrick Marber’s “Closer” remains infinitely shrewder and more psychologically acute about the collapse of human niceties when the heat is on. “Edmond,” by contrast, parades its bleakness (“The world is a piece of shit — no law, no history, just now.”) like an unearned badge of honor, its nihilism no less posturing than the sentimentality it is set against in a milieu ruled by fear and abject respect for “the strong.”
Just when it’s least expected, “Edmund” gets all gooey, too, in a final redemptive encounter that makes absolutely no literal or metaphoric sense. The climactic embrace may explain Mamet’s description of “Edmond,” against the odds, as a “hopeful” play, but it can’t account for the gerrymandering of a text that all but revels in its own ugliness, only to shift gears as abruptly as Hall’s huge cast appears and disappears from Michael Pavelka’s appropriately gray, faceless set.
In an extravagance only the National could pull off, 20 performers are here deployed in a play that has typically made do with half as many. The downside to such Equity-friendly dealings comes with the dissipation of tension in a text that depends upon our sense of a world closing in on Edmond, a feeling previously intensified by the presence of the same few actors popping up in a variety of roles. Nor can there be much reward for this company in getting little more than a cameo (many of them of the shouty, uninflected sort) while Branagh struts his stuff, breaking into his breakneck rhythms from the Woody Allen film “Celebrity” only near the end — when, to be precise, Mamet’s script (“ya know, ya know, ya know”) gets most Allen-esque. By that point, you’ve either fully succumbed to “Edmond” or stepped right back from it. Whichever your response, rest assured of one thing: “Manhattan” was never like this.