By David Mamet
What is a “Boston marriage”, I hear you cry. It wasn’t until I’d seen this powerful play by David Mamet that I realised it was a reference to the other “love that dare not speak its name”, a liaison between two women who live together without a man. These liaisons were not necessarily sexual, although they were the cause of much speculation around the end of the 19th century, when this spiky little play is set. After all, lesbianism was barely known and little understood, and the reason it was not a crime in England, for example, was that none of Queen Victoria’s legal advisers dared to explain to her exactly what the term implied.
In Mamet’s play, though, Boston suggests the geographical location as well as the social practice, and the first impression of the elegant set (the play is staged in the old vicarage of Christ Church Anglican precinct in Milton) is that we have stepped straight into a Henry James novel. And then one thinks of his work The Bostonians and everything falls into place.
BR> But you don’t have to know, much less care about, that portentous writer to appreciate this play, because the other turn-of-the-century writer who springs immediately to mind is Oscar Wilde. Now there’s a marriage made in – wherever you like, and what Mamet has done is combine the sentiments of a century-old sexual practice with his own sparse clipped dialogue, to produce a minor theatrical masterpiece that doesn’t drag for a minute.
Anna (Anke Willems) is the older of the two women, waiting impatiently for her estranged friend Claire (Jane-Elizabeth Ballinger). Anna lives in an elegant love-nest, set up not for a female liaison, but for Anna herself by a rich male lover, whom she has taken to support her secret lifestyle. When Claire finally arrives the atmosphere is knife-sharp, for the women have different expectations – Anna’s to be reunited with her ex-lover, and Claire to find a room where she can consummate her desire for a young inexperienced girl with whom she has fallen in love.
Fire-crackers all round, for although the women’s deportment may be as buttoned-up as their place in society demands, the emotions beneath their bustiers are as old as time and as savage as you could wish. And when their physical rectitude is contrasted with their crackling 20th century dialogue, sparks begin to fly.
The acidic verbal sparring is constantly interrupted by a dumb-ox Scottish serving maid, Catherine (Keira Louis), whom Anna insists on treating like a cipher, not even bothering to get her name or nationality right. This total disregard of another human being’s right to an identity could be funny, but in the light of Anna’s own secret underworld it is disturbingly ironic, no matter how much the director plays it for laughs. For the tragedy of this play is not the fate of the lesbians, but the way they are unable to cross the class barrier to unite in female solidarity with another oppressed woman.
The costuming is exquisite, the Edwardian dresses draped elegantly around Claire and Anna’s buttoned-up psyches, and the old vicarage provides a perfect setting for such a period piece – although the doors and fireplace would have been more authentic without the cheap varnish that undercut the elegance of the furnishings. But it’s the perfect venue for such a production, and it’s good to see plays being performed more and more outside the mainstream theatres, which are prohibitively expensive for independent theatre companies.
The acting is controlled, perhaps over-controlled, and in such a small venue, where audience and cast are only a few metres from each other, the stylisation often seems forced. One could wish, for example, that the women could look each other directly in the eye rather than stand like porcelain statues. It makes it impossible for an audience to warm to any of them, except perhaps the maid with her effusive bouts of crying, and when the illegal kiss finally arrives it loses its shock value.
But for all its flaws this is a production worth seeing, a rare chance to see one of America’s most cutting-edge playwrights giving us, for once, a play about frustrated women rather than a wasteland of brutal men. I wish this new company well, and hope they will continue to break the barriers of conventionality in every way.
Director John Zuill
Designer Genevieve Morrow Ganner
Playing Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm until 9 June 2007
Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes, with a fifteen-minute interval