sat 02/07/2022

The Woods, Southwark Playhouse review - early Mamet not fully elevated | reviews, news & interviews

The Woods, Southwark Playhouse review - early Mamet not fully elevated

The Woods, Southwark Playhouse review - early Mamet not fully elevated

Francesca Carpanini shines in murky Mamet two-hander

Into the woods: Francesca Carpanini and Sam Frenchum Pamela Raith photography

"Get into the scene late and get out early." So wrote David Mamet in his 1992 book On Directing Film, and Southwark Playhouse, among London's most charmingly eclectic theatres, has delved very early into Mamet's canon, reviving his 1977 play The Woods – a two-hander not seen in London since 1996.

While the play revolves around a dynamic that is hardly obscure – man and woman's ultimate incompatibility – a spirited production can't disguise why we will see plenty more of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross before this one ever gets revived again.

The plot of is simple. Nick (Sam Frenchum) has invited girlfriend Ruth (Francesca Carpanini) to his family lakeside country house in northern Michigan. They proceed to argue, embrace and fight on the front porch of his cabin, with only a tree trunk for company. Oh, and they talk about nature. The pair indulge in so much discussion about their outside environment that at times I had to be reminded I was watching lines penned by David Mamet, not David Attenborough. It's a bewitching conceit to think that the authenticity of country surroundings would blow open the gulf between Nick and Ruth's ideas relating to commitment, insecurity and vanity, and it reminded me of Anthony Powell's euphemism "studying nature" to describe sex. Yet Mamet fails to do it justice.

Sam Frenchum as Nick and Francesca Carpanini as Ruth in 'The Woods'The clunky metaphors about fish and rain begin to grate as does the tediously repetitive cycle of proceedings: Ruth and Nick express positive emotions towards each other, sharply retract their feelings when they do not get reciprocated and then comment on the environment. Moments after she has just been assaulted, is it really realistic that Ruth would make a reference to planktons? Mamet makes multiple allusions to classical myths and more than once Nick and Ruth are babes in the wood, seeking solace in fairy stories even though their reality is not effectively rendered.

Yet much credit must go to Francesca Carpanini for elevating her elementary archetypal character; the feisty helplessness she gives to Ruth will be recognisable to anyone who has ever been on a holiday in remote surroundings that goes wrong. Carpanani's Ruth is an emotional livewire, tripping up over Nick's inability to return her affections, and on this evidence the actress would be a natural fit to play Karen in Mamet's brilliant Hollywood satire Speed-the-Plow. Frenchum is less assured as Nick, his lack of aggression undermining the alpha male insecurity that Mamet would far more successfully return to in future work. Russell Bolam tautly directs, but the problem lies with the play. 

Mamet was on surer footing two decades later when he returned to the theme of love and conflict in the woods scripting the underrated 1997 film The Edge. Bears are referenced in The Woods, but the movie featured the unlikely spectacle of Anthony Hopkins, Elle MacPherson and Alec Baldwin actually getting chased by such a beast outside their country cabin. No such entertaining unpredictability is on show here; despite serving up an efficient and sincere production, cast and crew cannot clear a persuasive thicket through The Woods

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