After the week we’ve had and the blow it’s been for women and minority groups everywhere, the idea of escaping to the theatre – that great equalising arena, frequent champion of love and acceptance – is appealing. So it’s a huge disappointment when there’s no relief to be found. Sydney Theatre Company’s Speed-the-Plow just picks up those misogynistic attitudes and (as though a mirror) reflects them back at you, endorsed.
On David Fleischer’s minimalistic set (a half-renovated new office), we meet the freshly promoted film exec Bob (a driven turned compassionate and conflicted Damon Herriman) and Charlie (an over-zealous Lachy Hulme), an old collaborator eager to pitch an idea for a new film. The film proposed is the typical Hollywood blockbuster, a prison film starring a popular actor and filled with sex, violence and titillation.
Bob’s temporary assistant Karen (Rose Byrne, comically earnest) is the only thing standing in the way of this film being made when she attempts to convince Bob to make a film with real substance instead.
Speed-the-Plow depicts Hollywood as it was in the 80s (and likely still is): a man’s world fuelled by money and greed, where a sure-fire hit will always win out over a risky film with a more meaningful message. This play almost feels like it could have something powerful to say right now, if treated in the right way. It could be a stark reflection of the state the world was in 30 years ago, and, after the events of this week, seems to still be in today. It could challenge the misogyny inherent in this Hollywood world and use Karen’s optimistic passion as a voice that cuts through that bullshit and cries out for change. Instead, through Upton’s direction and treatment of Byrne’s Karen, who is largely positioned as a naïve woman who doesn’t know any better, this production merely endorses the unbridled misogyny that drives Mamet’s play.
While Mamet’s script has a fast pace and natural wit, this comedy is rarely funny: most of the laughs come from sexist attitudes and casual degradation of women. Women are treated as inexperienced players in a man’s world who could not possibly understand the way commercialism works, and the audience seems encouraged to agree with this thesis. Karen’s ideas are treated as foolish attempts to bring meaning into this stark vision of Hollywood and in a horrific final scene, she is reduced to her body, using ‘sexual power’ to get ahead.
This play echoes everything we’ve seen said about women in the shocking outcome of the US election and the promise of a President Trump, and at a time when these abhorrent views have shown to be widely tolerated, this play’s endorsement of these values is sickening.
Apart from the rampant misogyny at play, it is difficult to invest in these characters. While Herriman delivers a powerful performance of a man torn between his values and his understanding of the world, the tale of a white man’s burden of too much pressure in a high business position is not one we need to see again. The stakes escalate far too quickly, with a fight scene seeming unnatural and the only laughable moment in the show. Watching two men fighting for more money, privilege, and power, all the while demeaning women, it was hard to care about which movie they chose and if their friendship survived. It was hard to want to spend any time with them at all.
Speed the Plow is marketed as a satire, but the purpose of a satire is to challenge and undermine the values it presents. This play feels more like an acceptance of the shocking attitudes within it, rather than a powerful undermining of them, and after this week I’m not having a bar of it.