There’s a lot of testosterone boiling under the roof of the new Arcola as two short works by David Mamet are staged in a double bill. Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien are intriguing companion pieces; written early on in Mamet’s career both are embryonic works but their paring throws up no direct connection, apart from the fact that they are both overwhelmingly masculine in tone.
First up is Lakeboat (later developed into a film in 2000); it’s a compact and fast number in which the audience get to peak through the portholes of a barnacled boat and into the lives of ‘the floating home of 45 men’. Mamet delights in rapid-fire language, in words delivered so quickly it takes a few minutes to settle into its rhythms and cliquey references. This is a closed boys club but not a particularly interesting one, the characters bob about on a sea of undulating aggression, mouthing off about past conquests, future annihilations and lost opportunities.
Through the eyes of newcomer Dale (sweetly played by Steven Webb) we are led through a sequence of expositions and sociological descriptions about life on board the lake boat. The always watchable Nigel Cooke tries his hardest with the character of suicidal Joe and brings a level of psychological intensity to Mamet’s bluster. But this is a banal script which entraps every actor into an endless loop of strangely inconsequential reactions and long-winded stories. For all its surface angst, this play is essentially about men talking – and then more men talking.
Whilst it’s difficult to grasp why she may have chosen this particular script from Mamet’s back-catalogue, director Abbey Wright does a smooth job and the cast battle valiantly on. Helen Goddard’s set is redolent of decaying male endeavour; the innards of the ship projecting the lost hopes and frustrations of those incarcerated there.
This is followed by the shorter but far more intriguing Prairie Du Chien, a ghostly moment of storytelling that builds to a shockingly explosive conclusion. Here Mamet has used his undeniable precision to create a theatrical time bomb waiting to go off. Two card players spar in a smoky train compartment as a porter whistles quietly and the sound of a scratchy record spins interminably on. Against this thick soundscape Cooke makes a compelling narrator, spinning his eerie tale of adultery, spirit possession and murder.
This short play has a tightly wound quality which is emphasised by Wright’s production, the card players and porter underpinning and occasionally counterpointing Cooke’s velvety delivery. There is a sense of ‘otherness’ hinted at and alluded to in Prairie Du Chien and this adds a texture to this piece that eluded the previous, more brash offering. Mamet explores the idea of civilised man verses beast without feeling the need to produce pithy, easy conclusions or introduce comedy escape valves. It’s a rare moment of subtlety from a playwright who appears disdainful of subtext; what a shame it’s partnered with so much hot air.