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Branagh's Edmond

A review of the archived videotape of the National Theatre Production of Edmond with the earlier text from 1980.

EDMOND.  By David Mamet

Royal National Theatre, London.  28 July 2003.

 

The arc of the concrete wall across the back of the stage met the concrete walls of the Olivier Theatre to complete a stark gladiator’s arena.  Characters swept into Edmond’s path to present the next challenge through five doors in the wall, as he staggered between minimalistic sets on a revolve.  Kenneth Branagh played Edmond brilliantly, shifting from stifled to manic, from vulnerable to vicious.  With his wife and the Interrogator, Edmond is subdued, dully answering with the monosyllables of a child on the defensive.  In the city he is in over his head, treading water with his speech.  After unleashing his frustrations and rage on the Pimp, he becomes manic as he reinvents the world for himself, gesticulating wildly.

This was Branagh’s first appearance at the National Theatre, but his riveting performance was not the only fascinating aspect of the production:  director Edward Hall decided to use as the script a 1980 manuscript of Edmond from the National’s Literary Department, with David Mamet’s permission.  This early version contains two additional scenes as well as extensive additional dialogue in key scenes.  The impact of this material on Edmond’s character arc is intriguing, considering Mamet cut it before the play was published by Grove Press in 1983.1

Having just beaten and kicked the Pimp, circling his prey, Edmond swaggers into the Coffeehouse in the 1980 manuscript.2  Branagh’s animation and rapid speech at this point sharply contrasted with his earlier subdued and restricted movements and speech.  Edmond follows his epiphany that “Our only treasure is to act” by telling Glenna “I want to go home with you tonight.” 

The additions to the scene in Glenna’s apartment in the 1980 manuscript expand the relationship between Edmond and Glenna (Nicola Walker).  The scene begins with an ebullient Edmond preaching his new-found philosophy of how to live authentically:  “You have to stay up late.  You have to let strange impulses come out….  [Y]ou can’t break a habit with a thought….  You have to break a habit with a shock”:  “Stay up, get drunk, break out, do something terrible…do something THAT YOU WOULDN’T DO.”  With Glenna agreeing to everything he says, Edmond continues, “Because our goddam life is we do things because we did them…  Eh?  To please someone, or to make money….”  Complaining about the life he has left behind, he concludes:  “we never see our life.”  Then he slams the survival knife on the table and the scene continues as in the published text.  Additional dialogue from the 1980 version gives further insight into Edmond’s problems with women.  After declaring that his mother forced him to learn the piano, Edmond rants “You bitch, you ruined my motherfucking life.”  At this point Glenna senses Edmond’s hostility and begins to pull away, becoming less enthusiastic in agreeing with him and starting to question some of his statements; this leads into their argument about whether she really can call herself an actress.  Branagh and Walker built the tension brilliantly, circling the apartment as if it were a boxing ring.  The murder scene was brutal, streams of blood arcing through the air each time Edmond brought the knife back.  After realizing that she is dead, Edmond coolly rolled her body off the couch as if it were a pillow.  Because in the 1980 manuscript Glenna and Edmond spend more time getting to know each other, his attack is even more surprising, yet it is foreshadowed when he reveals the misogynistic hostility just below the surface. 

The most significant difference in the National’s production, following the 1980 manuscript, is that Edmond repents for what he has done and prays for mercy before he hears the Preacher in “The Mission.”  The first of the two additional 1980 scenes takes place “On the Street” after Edmond kills Glenna.  Edmond faces down a Tramp who is demanding his money and threatening him with a gun in his pocket:  “Are you going to make me pull it out on you and kill you?”3  Perhaps hearing this threat makes Edmond realize what he has just done.  In the National’s production, Edmond lunges at the Tramp but is pushed away; he then staggers onto the top of the concrete wall for “The Bridge” scene and vomits over the side onto the stage.  Half-clothed, repulsed and sickened by his crime, Edmond launches into a long, desperate prayer and confession:  “No one can be lower than I.  (pause)  What can I do to end this torture in my soul?”  He prays “I know you can wash clean the deepest wrong....  Intercede for me, Oh God.  Give me a sign.”  Echoes of the liturgy throughout his prayer suggest a lapsed faith.  Edmond recites an Ave Maria, reaching back, perhaps, to a childhood memory.  The audience becomes Edmond’s confessor, as he bares his soul on a bridge above the city; it is the first time he has physically escaped the trials of the concrete arena.  Edmond repents and promises to live a better life, but he does so without clearly taking responsibility for his actions.  What he seems to regret most is that “My life is over.”  Still, Branagh’s earnest desperation created sympathy for Edmond.

At this point Edmond hears the Preacher in “The Mission” scene, the only part that dragged in the National’s production; the Preacher’s sermon is more than twice as long in the 1980 manuscript.  The Preacher (Joseph Mydell) spoke from a suspended pulpit, a neon cross burning into the audience’s eyes.  In the extended version the Preacher further explores the darkness Edmond has found in himself:  God “knows what we are, The Sinners, the adulterers, the murderers in thought and deed, the depth of hate within our soul.  The depth of hate which masks the depth of love....  He knows that which you seek:  and he knows that it is not sin, but love.”  The Preacher seems to be saying exactly what Edmond wants to hear:  he was only trying to connect with Glenna and the woman on the train, but his good intentions went horribly wrong.  God “knows what you suffer.  He sees into your heart, he sees your spirit, he knows what you are, my friends.  He knows you are not bad but good.  You hear me friends?  He knows that you are pure.  That secret you’ve not dared whisper to yourselves that you are good.  That man is good, my friends, and that the Lord loves you.  AND YOU ARE SAVED.  Come up here now and testify.”  The Preacher seems to offer Edmond an answer to his prayer to “turn the hands of time past what I’ve done.”  Edmond responds:  “I will testify.”  In the 1980 version, the Preacher continues speaking from his pulpit throughout this scene, even after Edmond is arrested.  The additional prayer scene on the bridge has shown Edmond repenting, but he soon will lie about his name and ask the Interrogator “What girl?”  And after Edmond’s long confessional prayer it is hard to make the jump to his rejection of the prison Chaplain’s suggestion that perhaps he is ready to be filled:  “That’s pious bullshit.”  The 1980 manuscript gives us more insight into Edmond, but it is contradictory and inconsistent.

The concrete arena now becomes an echoing, antiseptic prison, the shadow of a barred window projected onto the stage.  The 1980 manuscript offers several comic moments, played perfectly by Branagh.  When the Prisoner (Nonso Anozie) tells Edmond to “just get on my body,” Edmond stammers “I seriously…we’re going to be here a long time and I don’t think we want to start like this.”  And when the Chaplain asks Edmond why he killed Glenna, Edmond’s first response is “I think I’d had too much coffee.  (pause)  I’m sure that there are other reasons.  (pause)  But that’s one that I know.” 

Edmond’s descent is swift and visceral.  Edward Hall’s frenetically paced production ran 70 harrowing minutes, even with two scenes and additional dialogue added to the published text’s 23 scenes.  Mamet also updated the economics of the play in June 2003 at Hall’s request; inflation affects the sex trade as well.  Though Branagh’s performance was powerful, Edmond’s rapid transformation from passive middle class citizen to murderer is still hard to believe.

 

ANN BLISS

Western Oregon University

 


1  The 1983 Samuel French acting edition of Edmond: A Drama contains some of this additional dialogue in scenes 15, 16, and 20.  But it does not contain the 1980 manuscript’s two additional scenes or the most significant extended dialogue in scenes 16 and 17 (scene numbers are from the published 23-scene text).

2  This is one of two significant stage directions in the Samuel French edition that reflect the 1980 manuscript.  The other is the final moment of the play:  “EDMOND reaches up and gives the PRISONER a kiss, then he sits back on his bed.”  In the National’s production, Branagh’s gesture was simple but powerful, eliciting a gasp from the audience.

3  This scene was cut before the 1982 production, but the Tramp remains on the character list of the Grove and Methuen editions of the text, though he does not appear in any scene.