It was about ten minutes into Russell Bolam’s fresh revival of David Mamet’s controversial ‘heterosexuality play’, The Woods, that I began wondering whether I might perhaps be suffering some sort of medical emergency, or if my drink could have been spiked in the brief journey from the bar to seat. The problem, finally identified, was that the two actors standing in front of us were both speaking — and I believe this is a technical phrase — very, very, very quickly. In my fifteen years of regular theatregoing, I have never heard any actor speak their lines so speedily who wasn’t being threatened by a concealed weapon. This is probably the biggest single problem in Bolam’s dead-weight, featherbrained production, but if it doesn’t take your fancy, there are plenty more to choose from.
But first, a word from our sponsors. The Woods stretches lingeringly through two days in an isolated, lakeside cabin, occupied by a young couple. There are dreams, tears, and a big oar. What more can I say? It is the definition of a ‘mood piece’, very much in the same vein as Mamet’s brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross, and his even better, criminally underrated, American Buffalo. Unlike these two crown jewels, The Woods has already remained rather critically shadowed, and revivals are hard to find, though perhaps for good reason. Certainly, some of the blame for ninety minutes of thudding clangers must be laid at Mamet’s mansion door — but not all of it.
To perform an extended two-hander, with no interval, in a theatre so intimate that every facial expression is visible must be awfully hard, but Carpanini and Frenchum are just not up to the task. Carpanini speaks like a woman trying to get through a table read while keeping an eye on the bus timetable, and Frenchum, though talented, has none of the emotional gravitas necessary to draw the audience sympathetically into the fettered, clanky psychoses of Nick. Many of their early scenes gave the impression that I had stumbled in on a rehearsal — in truth, in on quite an early rehearsal.
To contextualise some of these complaints, I’ll provide an example: in a late scene, after an evening of drinking, Nick complains that Ruth is drunk; immediately, in a single transition, Ruth begins acting drunkenly. How has Bolan not caught this, and put a stop to it? Similarly, Carpanini’s completely exposed, impassive face while ‘crying’ undermines the entire finale. Could it, just possibly, be some brilliant commentary that I’m missing? Is Ruth so fraudulent that she fakes her tears, in order to obtain sympathy from Nick? Does Nick’s suggestion that she is drunk, leads on to a pretence that she is? The answer to all three of these questions feels like ‘No, obviously not’, but I mention them anyway, just in case.
I would like to watch a well-handled revival of The Woods. I have a lot of faith in Mamet, and though I cannot imagine anything reaching the heights of American Buffalo’s denouement, his other work is well worth exploring again, and his talent undeniable. Bolan, Carpanini, and Frenchum, though, are just not up to the task — amateur dramatics cannot justify charging £22 or more per ticket, at a time when a dress circle seat in a major, Central London theatre can be snapped up for £15 at a matinee. One deserved compliment, though, must go to the wonderful Anthony Lamble, Southwark’s Set/Costume designer; under his auspicious hand, Frenchum’s Nick looks brilliantly like a surfer trying to solve a murder in a 70s television show — and even if this was not the intention, it’s a rare moment of comic relief. Thank you, Anthony Lamble. It’s a shame about the play.