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Edmond

"You know how much of our lives we’re alive, you and me? Nothing. Two minutes out of the year. When we meet someone new, when we get married, when, when, when, when we’re in difficulties....once in our life at the death of someone that we love. That’s it - in a carcrash...and that’s it. You know, you know, we’re sheltered...."

A fortune-teller sends Edmond lurching into New York City’s hellish underworld, his whole life abandoned in a searing quest for self-discovery and redemption. A furious, unflinching, whirlwind of a play.

By all accounts, Kenneth Branagh was riveting at London's National Theatre, in the lead role of the dark play "Edmond" written by David Mamet. The production, directed by Edward Hall, son of Sir Peter Hall, ran in the Olivier Theatre from July 10th until October 4th.

Joining Kenneth Branagh in the cast of this production were:

Jude Akuwudike
Stephen Greif
Tony Haygarth
Robert Horwell
David Kennedy
Adam Levy
Iain Mitchell
Nicola Stephenson
Harry Towb

The production was designed by Michael Pavelka, with lighting by Mark Henderson and sound by Paul Groothuis.

David Mamet’s plays include Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross (1984 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards), American Buffalo, The Old Neighborhood, A Life in the Theater, Speed-the-Plow, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Cryptogram (1995 Obie Award). His films include House of Games, Oleanna, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, State and Main and Heist (all as screenwriter/director).

Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Theatre Awards - Winner: Kenneth Branagh for Edmond

"I'm absolutely delighted to receive this award. The audiences at the National through the whole of the £10 season were quite remarkable. To have their vote is truly rewarding. On behalf of my fellow cast members, who know they share this recognition, thank you to theatregoers all over!" -- Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh's unleashed performance as a modern everyman amuck satisfied audiences in a play meant to provoke.

Branagh's last stage performance, as Richard III at the Crucible Theatre, was sold out and judged a critical smash in 2002.

Click here for stage door photos from the Kenneth Branagh Compendium.

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Theater Review: 'Edmond'
Tue Jul 22, 2003
Ray Bennett

LONDON (Hollywood Reporter) - After a decade's absence from the London stage, Kenneth Branagh could not have chosen a better showcase for his prodigious talents than David Mamet's pugnacious little play "Edmond."

As the title character in Mamet's allegory, he descends from stagnant middle-class civility into a hellish nether world where his bourgeois assumptions are tested and every bias and savage impulse is unleashed.

An encounter with a fortune teller causes bland businessman Edmond to confront the emptiness of his life and marriage. His wife's shrill complaint that the maid has broken a lamp prompts him to flee the safe boredom of his home into the quagmire of New York's darkest streets.

The act of leaving his wife tilts him into a free fall that allows no purchase as he sinks into a bog that he mistakes for freedom. To Edmond's surprise, hookers are expensive, pimps are violent, and the guy running a three-card monte game on the street is a cheat.

Still, Edmond wanders the streets, encountering big-city night crawlers, until he is robbed and beaten and left bewildered. "We live in a fog; we live in a dream," he declares.

But then he turns and discovers liberation in killing a black man who has attacked him. Screeching racial hatred, he finds what he thinks is a kind of peace in living in the moment.

Freed, he goes home with a waitress, but their riotous sex play leads to conversation. She balks at his refusal to accept her self-delusions, so he knifes her bloodily to death. Undone by his crime, he seeks redemption, but the salvation he finds is not so very different from the life he fled.

All this is accomplished in 75 minutes, driven by Edward Hall's spiky direction and fleshed out by Mamet's trademark arsenal of language with its asphalt harshness and lacerating tone. There is a large cast for a one-act play, and everyone onstage catches the urgency and spirit of the production.

Tracy-Ann Oberman as Edmond's outraged wife, Nicola Stephenson as an enthusiastic peep-show girl, Rebecca Johnson as a matter-of-fact hooker and Nicola Walker as unfortunate waitress Glenna play off Branagh's energy splendidly. Carol Macready makes her three roles vivid, and Nonso Anozie destroys the stereotype of his massive convict at the climax.

Branagh bites into the prose and spits it out as poetrys with his extraordinary ability to utter every phrase and fragment as if they were fresh born and not from a writer's page. Onstage throughout the play, Branagh is fearless and confidently naked -- once literally -- as he makes Edmond's torment and bewilderment believable.

This is no small accomplishment as much of what Mamet has Edmond say is the direst adolescent blither: callow bleating about life, sex, love, God and fate.

The play was written in 1982, and it's hard to imagine even then that a city-dweller such as Edmond could be so naive. There is something of Jackson Pollock about Mamet; he appears to splash words onto his canvas, often artfully, rich and colorful. Certainly, actors relish them.

When delivered by Branagh and the other first-rate actors in this production, an audience may also be enthralled. But the words bear little examination for any lasting meaning. Pollock's style, but perhaps not his genius.

"Edmond" is, however, a brilliant actor's showcase, and Branagh does it brilliantly.

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A dark play shines brightly at the National

The Guardian UK
Tuesday July 22, 2003
Matthew Bell

Edmond at the National Theatre

Kenneth Branagh made a triumphant return to the London stage, after more than a decade's absence, in the revival of David Mamet's 1982 play about a New Yorker who swaps middle-class respectability for an urban hell peopled by pimps, whores and lowlifes. "Branagh's dark night of the soul reminds us of what we have missed," wrote Georgina Brown in the Mail on Sunday, "with a performance that is precise, penetrating and painfully eloquent."

The playwright was lauded by the critics, too. The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer conceded that "Mamet's walk on the wild side of sleazy big-city life" had inspired too many pale imitations, but "in an overworked genre, this is the original, and the best".

Audiences of tender sensibilities face an unsettling evening as Edmond's racism and violence explode on stage, yet the play has its more uplifting moments. "For all its darkness - and plays don't come much darker than this - Edmond is finally illuminated by shafts of light," added Spencer. "I found myself deeply moved by the glimpse of redemption and common humanity that ends the play."

Poor reviews were rare. The London Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh thought Edmond was not "major Mamet", identifying the antihero's decline and fall as "too briskly allegorical" and judging the characters a "touch cartoonish". Nevertheless, he added, "what a riveting nightmare vision of America is unfurled before us. And with what intense imposing vigour Branagh strips himself down to his bare essentials and reveals a soul in torment."

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EDMOND
Five stars (out of 5)

Financial Times
18 July 2003
Alastair Macauley

He's half James Cagney and he's half Rupert Bear, and, like Dolly, he, Kenneth Branagh, is back where he belongs: on stage. In the title role of David Mamet's Edmond in the National Theatre's Travelex £10 Olivier season, you certainly get to see him. During the play's 75 minutes, he's seldom offstage for more than a few seconds. He's violent and vulnerable, he's a murderer who feels that he's a victim, he travels a large arc through the modern world at its harshest and ends up tender. The protagonist of an existential drama to be mentioned alongside Camus's novel L'Etranger and the most disturbing plays of Harold Pinter, Edmond is an exceptional role.

But Branagh's greatest virtue lies in another level of his interpretative gifts: for utterance. Last year, when he played Richard III in Sheffield in his first British stage performance in 10 years, he spoke the lines as if he had a hot line to Shakespeare and as if he was dropping the words in your inner ear. Now he brings the same powerful strength of diction to mamet, the playwright for whom rhythm becomes drama.

Branagh plays the role's first short phrases like ping-pong and like the ideal leader of a string quartet. Then, when the short phrases come pell-mell, he effortlessly hurls them out in long legato torrent of staccato syllables. His phrasing reaches its climax in a moment of virtual breakdown. Asked to explain his reason for a senseless murder, he calls out isolated, clenched syllables such as separate, maximum-tension chords: "I - Don't - Think - I - Don't..."

Edmond is the always tough Mamet at his toughest, making drama without a hint of charm, fiercely riveting us with the heartless blast of modern urban life, making us laugh largely by absurdity and irony, achieving pathos only by what he leaves unsaid. Edward Hall directs; though I never knew he could manage such a sparse, rhythmical, abrasive and gripping production. Amid the large cast, Carol Macready, Nicola Walker, Adam Levy and Nonso Anozie are outstanding. But it is the union of Branagh and Edmond that fills your head long after the play: modern man on the rack, at odds with the world and himself, searching for meaning in the dark and in despair.

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Mail on Sunday
20 July 2003
Georgina Brown

Comeback Branagh’s All the Rage

Photo caption: A raving genius... Kenneth Branagh's fury in Edmond is mesmerising.

This week Kenneth Branagh returned to the London stage after a decade away, and made his first appearance ever at the National Theatre. He takes the title role in Edmond, David Mamet's extraordinary, exhilarating 1982 play which murders liberal values as it tells of a man's search for himself in a nightmarish, pitiless city.

The play starts off in a darkly comic vein and gets progressively darker. Ordinary 37-year-old businessman Edmond's journey is triggered by a visit to a clairvoyant, who tells him he is not where he belongs. He tells his hard wife he's leaving and not coming back ("You don't interest me spiritually or sexually"), and begins his descent into hell.

He tries to get laid, and wanders meekly to a club which proves too expensive. Edmond is not simply new to New York lowlife, he's also short of cash, rather mean, deeply uncool and increasingly angry. A hooker in shiny red thigh-length boots looks like a cheaper option, but 'treatment' through a small hole in a large screen does not appeal. Edmond's disappointment, humiliation and degradation continue at a 'club' where again coitus is interrupted by his lack of funds. He runs out wearing only his vest, a figure more ridiculous than pitiful, only to be fleeced and beaten up by cardsharps.

Battered and bleeding, Edmond is down but not yet out. He finally loses it when a pimp demands his money or his life, and Edmond lets rip with blows and a torrent of racist abuse.

It's a shocking moment, which Edmond evidently finds liberating, even enjoyable. Galvanised by his new-found potency, he makes a pass at a waitress and scores. And it's as if a lid has been blown off a pressure-cooker. Words pour out as he sheds any vestige of self-control, culminating in a sudden, brutal murder. Mamet’s writing here is superb, so elegant, economical and insightful.

There's something of Edmond in all of us, and Mamet pins it down brilliantly. Ed Hall's fluid, vivd, intelligent production captures a city which is also a state of mind, and Branagh's dark night of the soul reminds us of what we have missed with a performance that is precise, penetrating and painfully eloquent.

The unexpected and tender embrace which ends this piece takes your breath away. It also explains why Mamet considers this play one of hope. All this, thanks to the current Travelex season for just £10.

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BRANAGH BACK IN COMMAND
Sunday Express
20 July 2003
Mark Shenton

The superb Kenneth Branagh gives (and shows) his all in his long-overdue return to the London stage this week. Playing the title role in David Mamet's Edmond, he is totally in command of a play about a man whose life is paradoxically spiraling rapidly out of control. As a 37-year-old who, in quick succession, leaves his wife and former life behind him and embarks on a brief but brutal journey through New York's underworld, Branagh's tour de force performance reveals an emotional nakedness even more shocking than the full-frontal one he gives when he visits a massage parlour.

In a chilly landscape of urban alienation in which everyone from pimps and prostitutes to cardsharps and pawn shops are trying to fleece him, he finds power by fighting back against a mugger and turns his fury on two women to whom he tries to reach out.

He verbally insults one on the subway; the other a waitress and aspiring actress with whom he goes home, he physically assaults.

Mamet's snapshot of this journey of self-destruction is grim and gruelling, with spare, terse dialogue and rapid changes of scene that unfold with a filmic fluidity.

Edward Hall's gripping production on the forestage of the National's Olivier in a design that mirrors the theatre's concrete architecture, is populated by more than double the number of actors than the nine who managed to do it when it was first seen in London in 1985 at the Royal Court.

Presented as part of the Travelex £10 season in which two-thirds of the seats are just a tenner, it remains a deeply unsettling play.

(Thanks to Catherine.)

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So Good at Being So Bad

Kenneth Branagh makes a triumphant debut at the National in Mamet's classic study of male alienation

Kate Kellaway
Sunday July 20, 2003
The Observer

Kenneth Branagh's Edmond starts as no more than a voice in a suit. When he tells his wife - with only the fancy candelabrum and the mahogany table between them - that he is leaving her, he delivers the news in a monotone, as if he were stepping out to the shops. He cannot interest himself in his own narrative - his boredom is huge and amoral.

His wife (Tracy-Ann Oberman) produces a sound of childish surprise: an artificially high piping; her alarm has been set off and hysteria follows. The scene is comic but troubling: Edmond - already - is on automatic pilot, an emotional vagrant, about to lose all control of his life.

Control is crucial to David Mamet. He is a covert philosopher and here takes on free will versus determinism with pessimistic stealth and brilliance. What does the idea - or myth - that we are in charge of our choices signify?

There is, throughout Edmond, first performed in 1982, a fine tension between Mamet's perfect control of his own material and the chaos he describes. At the end of the play, Edmond wonders aloud whether he could have gone any other - better - way. And we wonder too. We have been held in hellish, although compelling, detention for an hour and a quarter without an interval. Nor are we let off the hook afterwards: Mamet intends that we oversee the inquest.

It is hard to imagine a more challenging role for Branagh with which to make his National Theatre debut. An actor must go to the brink of his abilities to play Edmond; this is exactly what Branagh does. He is outstanding, a man possessed: versatile, generous and brave. As Edmond goes down, Branagh starts to come up.

He surges to the surface with the recklessness of a new criminal. He is inflated by energy one moment, punctured the next. His stature keeps changing: sometimes, he swells like a giant; more often, he shrinks back to become a small, hyperactive, grey-haired boy, especially in the vignettes with prostitutes in which he repeatedly bargains for their business (he will part with his baggy underwear sooner than empty his wallet).

To be aggressive and naïve is to hold a losing hand - and Edmond is both. He is a racist, too, and when he kills a black mugger in self-defence, a lifetime of unexpressed prejudice pours incontinently forth.

A dance of death begins: the racist murder is followed by the killing of a young waitress he has picked up. The scene between Edmond and the waitress is galvanising. Edmond, high on death and sex, is not in control. He is almost a figure of fun, hopping about in underpants and one sock.

But Branagh shrewdly exploits the ridiculous: he makes absurdity an incongruous foil to violence and psychosis. Nicola Walker plays the neurotic waitress beautifully, like a film on fast-forward. And the scene contains an uncanny, almost magical, moment in which the waitress (an out-of-work actress) suddenly testifies to her love of the theatre. It is as if, for one heady moment, an escape exit has been identified, as though her remark could bring our nightmare to an end, permit us to acknowledge it as a fiction. Instead, it is the prelude to her death.

Mamet shows how an ordinary man may tip over the edge into madness: Edmond and the waitress board the hate bus together - and ride. They hate blacks, they hate gays - and eventually, of course, they hate each other. Edmond is like Macbeth without any forward planning (and with no catharsis in prospect) but Branagh attains to almost Shakespearean highs and lows and, against all the odds, keeps a glimmer of sympathy for Edmond alive in us as he abjectly presents himself, in a fast and garbled prayer, to God.

In his book "Writing in Restaurants", Mamet noted the danger of trying to write plays that match up to any notion of reality. What a play must do instead, he argued, was serve its artistic purpose; to 'convince' was beside the point. He would surely approve, then, of Edward Hall's rigorous production. It is fiercely disciplined and advances smoothly. And we can only watch helplessly as the floor spins like Fortune's wheel and moves Edmond on.

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Branagh back in Edmond

Nicholas de Jongh
Evening Standard

No modern piece of theatre offers a more fearful moral-health warning than David Mamet's Edmond, his brief immorality play from 1982 about one respectable man's remorseless slither into New York's lower depths.

Here it is again, sounding disturbingly topical in Edward Hall's red-blooded, smooth-flowing production, though the Olivier stage is far too vast for a play that mainly consists of two-character close encounters.

As a consolation, however, Kenneth Branagh, returning to the London stage after far too many years away, beautifully fits the title role as if it had been cut and tailored for him.

Mamet takes only 75 shocking minutes and 23 televisual scenes to chart this all-downhill black comedy of a trip to the gutters of humiliation.

Cast aside middle-class conventions and inhibitions, abandon marriage and home in an attempt to bring your wildest sexual desires to life, Mamet seems to warn, and you end up living a nightmare, with nowhere left to fall.

The America that Mamet exposes to our fascinated gaze is one where low-life con-artists and crooks, card-sharpers, whores, pimps and peep-show merchants ply their bartering trade.

But behind Edmond's polite facade, it transpires, there lurks a racist, murderous sex-seeker who takes a survival knife for protection in the jungle of the city and cannot resist fatally plunging it into innocent flesh.

This may sound like a preachy piece of theatre, accusing America of succumbing to a fierce capitalism and leaving the country's varieties of underdog in snarling alienation.

But Mamet insists Edmond's life was preordained and fated.

I think he has written a classic play about the dark dangerous impulses that exist in us all and need to be kept under strict control.

Branagh's Edmond begins as the picture of middleclass conventionality. In his dark two-piece suit, he sits in his New York living room and calmly tells his wife, (a furious Tracy-Ann Oberman) he has not loved her for years and is leaving for ever.

Then in a helter-skelter of scenes, played on designer Michael Pavelka's bareish, unatmospheric stage which fails to capture Mamet's sense of New York in crumbling disarray, Edmond steps out into anarchy's playground.

Branagh deftly catches all the right changes in the man's temper, tone and style. His politeness passes, anger flares.

Stripped naked and right down to his incipient middle-aged spread in the company of Rebecca Johnson's shrewd whore, Branagh's Edmond is comically torn between driving a hard bargain and getting laid. Bloodied and dollarless, he seethes with a fine outrage and after inflicting retaliatory violence upon a passing pimp, his acting turns remarkable.

He stands there, tongue out, breathing all deep and heavy, uttering odd wordless cries And when it comes to murder he suddenly erupts as if a match had been tossed into dry tinder.

Edmond is not a major Mamet.

The anti-hero's decline and fall is too briskly allegorical and the characters are a touch cartoonish.

Besides the prison cell finale, in which a serene Edmond insists he cannot control his life and plants a goodnight kiss upon a prisoner who earlier forcibly buggered him, smacks of soothing sentimentality.

Yet what a riveting nightmare vision of America is unfurled before us.

And with what intense imposing vigour Branagh strips himself down to his bare essentials and reveals a soul in torment.

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Daily Mirror
Friday 18 July 2003

Ken's return is Bran-tastic
By Kevin O'Sullivan
Last night's first night

He has been away too long. But after an almost unbelievable 11-year absence the great Kenneth Branagh returned to the London stage last night and took it by storm.

I have never seen him live before. But after one of the most breathtaking performances it has ever been my privilege to witness, this much I can tell you: the man is an extraordinary actor.

The National Theatre provided Britain's finest thespian with one hell of play in which to showcase his boundless ability. David Mamet's shocking tale of a middle-class New York businessman's descent into madness, murder and demonic debauchery doesn't so much tell story as launch a full-frontal assault.

Mild-mannered Edmond Burke visits a fortune teller whose plain truths bring him to the climactic decision that he must immediately walk out on his wife. After leaving the marital home he careers headlong into the seedy side of America. He hires prostitutes, viciously beats a black pimp and horrifically stabs a waitress to death.

Mamet stares deep into the terrible failure of Manhattan's seething melting pot in a play about modern America: the sexless marriages, the divisive hatred and fear. After a decade starring in films like Frankenstein and Dead Again, there was magic in the air as Ken took his bow to a standing ovation. Incredibly, this was his debut at the National. But I think he may have found his spiritual home. He'll be back.

Photos from this production at the National Theatre are here.

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Edmond at the National Theatre, London

Michael Billington
Friday July 18, 2003

Sometimes the performance makes the play. For my money it is Kenneth Branagh's acting and Edward Hall's visceral production that turn this into an exciting occasion and overcome my doubts about David Mamet's elliptical theatrical nightmare. Mamet once called this "a morality play about modern society"; and, as in all morality plays, you feel everything is predetermined. The hero is a 37-year-old businessman, Edmond Burke, who walks out on his wife and plunges into the vortex of New York's night-town.

Going in search of sex, he finds it reduced to a transaction and, having been conned and mugged, he fatally buys a survival knife. In fits of racial and sexual rage, he kills a black pimp and a would-be actress and ends up in prison where he achieves a kind of redemption.

As always, Mamet writes lacerating, heart-stopping dialogue: the encounter between Edmond and the actress is a classic example of how a mutual adrenalin-buzz leads to mayhem through a misplaced question.

But, while Mamet's technique is impeccable, there is something willed about his hero's descent into the abyss. You feel Mamet is proving a thesis about the white American male and his channelling of sexual insecurity into racial hatred. He strips his hero of choice and imposes a false inevitability on proceedings, from Edmond's initial encounter with a fortune teller to his declaration in prison that "I always knew I would end up here".

My rational doubts were swept aside by the power of Hall's production and Branagh's mesmerising performance. Branagh invests Edmond with a chunky ordinariness concealing a bottled rage. Let loose on the streets, he becomes an uncaged animal; and when he picks up the table-waiting actress there is something menacing about the way his injunction "to live" is accompanied by a raised fist.

Branagh even avoids sentimentality in the climactic prison scene where he achieves a rapport with his black cellmate and speculates about an after-life with a Hamletesque bewilderment.

Michael Pavelka's revolving set whisks through the 23 scenes and evokes a New York full of sinister crannies and towering pulpits. And, in a play that takes the form of a restless, Dante-esque kaleidoscope, there are lightning-sharp performances from Nicola Walker as a manic actress, Stephen Greif as a campy hotel clerk and burly cop and Nonso Anozie as Edmond's redemptive cellmate.

There may be something over-calculated about the plummeting downfall of Mamet's hero but this superb production confirms the observation of another Edmund Burke about night's capacity to increase our terror.

· Until November 4. Box office: 020-7452 3000.

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The International Herald Tribune
Odd couple: Pairing Pinter with Coward
July 23, 2003
Sheridan Morley

In a remarkable and admirable initiative for regional theater, the Theater Royal, Bath is affording the Peter Hall company a launching pad for a season of five plays.

Only two of the plays are cross-cast: Harold Pinter's 1978 "Betrayal" and Noel Coward's 1933 "Design for Living" - the connection, beyond that of the cast, is ostensibly just that they are both modern masterpieces about love and betrayal. It could also be noted, that both plays are loosely inspired by real people. "Betrayal" concerns Pinter's extramarital affair with the television journalist Joan Bakewell, and Coward wrote "Design for Living" about his own love for both Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Because of a none-too-subtle subtext of bisexuality, "Design for Living" was banned in Britain until 1939 when the outbreak of war abruptly cut short its run. Since then it has survived even such travesties as the 1995 Sean Matthias revival, but what Hall has done is to reclaim the play as a tragi-comedy about real people rather than caricatures going over the top.

Although it has always been possible to see "Design for Living" as the triumph of the gay world over heterosexuality, this is actually, as Hall now shows us, a very much more complex play about the ethics of selfishness and the right of anyone, male or female, to seek out happiness regardless of the cost to others. It is in that sense an anthem to the ego, a hymn to the self, second only to "Peer Gynt." Of Hall's cast, Janie Dee is an enchanting Gilda, Aden Gillett a quirky Leo and Hugo Speer makes Hall's only mistake in offering an occasional parody of Coward's own voice, one which is loud enough in the writing.

"Design for Living," like "Fallen Angels," "Hay Fever" and "Private Lives," is about a group of people who find it impossible to live apart and equally impossible to live together. Here, Gilda, Otto and Leo discover that they can only survive as a trio, and at the final curtain all three come to realize that their unique design for living has to be triangular. The trick is not to make them unattractive, and that one Hall pulls off with commendable and elegant ease.

"Betrayal" qualifies only as minor Pinter. The story onstage is of an affair between an agent and the wife of his closest friend that is unmasked by her husband during a trip to Venice but that revelation is the only moment of genuine drama in what is otherwise a ritual and predictable account of a relationship that is going nowhere. When "Design for Living" got into the same trouble - three characters in search of a plot - Coward escaped the trap by going for the jokes and the cynically witty asides, as though all the main figures in the play were also commenting on their own behavior. Pinter goes for a different solution, trying to make us care enough about his three principals and what they eventually decide to do with their lives.

The same three actors, Dee, Speer and Gillett, play all six characters, often within a single day, and if any part of this amazing Hall season in Bath deserves to be seen in London and beyond, then surely it is this odd-couple pairing of Pinter and Coward.

David Mamet, alone among leading native dramatists, has dragged the American theater away from the classical, craggy integrity of Arthur Miller and the Deep Southern emotional outpouring of Tennessee Williams toward an urban, street-smart, high-definition intensity. His "Edmond," written 20 years ago, now gets a lavish revival on the National's Olivier stage, which is notable for two debuts - that of the actor Kenneth Branagh, and the director Ed Hall (son of the aforementioned Peter Hall), who come together for a powerhouse tour of the lower depths into which the title character falls after what seems like the innocuous decision to leave his querulous wife. With breathtaking speed, he falls through a series of trapdoors, tumbling from street con artists through bars and brothels to an eventual murder and the jail where at last he finds happiness, able only then to formulate a philosophy of the random nature of life and death. What saves "Edmond>," the play and the man, from being a portentous "Pilgrim's Progress" through the horrors of the inner city, is that Mamet remains cynically and caustically funny about the people - he sketches in here more than 20 of them and all treated like hostile cartoons. All except Branagh's "Edmond."

Branagh holds "Edmond" together with a remarkable kind of intensity and manages the high-speed gear shifts that are the essence of every fractured scene. In a sizable cast such character-acting stalwarts of the National as Harry Towb and Tony Haygarth, as well as newcomers such as Nicola Walker do what they can with flickering roles that disappear almost as soon as we first meet them. As a "Peer Gynt" for the second half of the 20th century, it works well enough in its own fragmentary, edgy, staccato style.

[Editor's Note: The plays "Betrayal" and "Design for Living" (and to a lesser extent, the plays "Plenty" by David Hare and "Closer" by Patrick Marber) inquire--with varied degrees of flinch--how people reconcile their lives with themselves. All four are highly recommended. ]

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Branagh's Return Has a Real Bite
Benedict Nightingale
July 18, 2003
Edmond at the National Theatre’s Olivier

You try to go forward, and proceed to go backwards. You free yourself, and end up even more trapped. You jump from the frying pan, and you’re in the fire. You run away from nurse and, yes, you find something worse. Those are the ironies that mark the play that last night brought Kenneth Branagh back to the London stage for the first time in a decade: David Mamet’s sweeping, swingeing attack on the American city and the American psyche, Edmond.

Edmond is pretty depressing to read: a brusquely picaresque trek through New York’s dire fleshpots that seems to suggest that the only darkness greater than the darkness outside is the darkness lurking inside the title character. But Edward Hall’s production is so energetic, pacey and well-acted, not least by Branagh himself, that I was gripped throughout. And who said that a play had to enchant, exhilarate or lift the spirits?

Told by a fortune teller he isn’t fulfilling his potential, Branagh’s Edmond promptly leaves his wife, only to be fleeced or frustrated by tarts, duped and beaten by a card-sharp and generally subjected to what, when the play appeared in 1982, was agreed to be the everyday callousness of Manhattan. It’s the cautionary tale of a drab suburban Candide, but with one big difference. Up from this besuited blank of a man come feelings to match the evils he encounters: a confused mix of racism, rage and self-pity that culminates in violence and a murder which Edmond, whose frenetic activity conceals a deep passivity, blames on his victim. With 23 scenes and locales from "adult" peepshow to whorehouse to subway to prison packed into its 75 unbroken minutes, the play needs a stark setting and punchy acting, and gets both at the Olivier.

Branagh’s performance doesn’t answer some of the superficial questions, such as why an educated bourgeois should be quite so ignorant of the world and himself, and it lacks the sexual hunger of an homme moyen sensuel who thinks that getting laid may be the solution. But it catches Edmond’s earnest curiosity, his growing bafflement, his escalating chaos, his animal fury, his hapless grief and, at the end, an odd peace.

And ugly though the play is, you will come to see what Mamet means when he says that his work is basically religious. By that I don’t just mean that Edmond is challenged by a fundamentalist preacher and a reproachful chaplain. This American Everyman, this worm in the rotting heart of the Big Apple, is actually searching for something not as material as his culture misleads him into assuming. But love, understanding and that sense of identity and belonging that the fortune teller invokes at the play’s opening all remain elusive: in Mamet’s America and maybe here, too.

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19 February 2003
Luke Leitch, Arts Reporter

Acting Great to make His Debut at the National in 'Savage' Mamet Play

BRANAGH RETURNS TO LONDON STAGE AFTER 11-YEAR ABSENCE

Kenneth Branagh is to make his first appearance on the London stage for 11 years. Over the last decade the 46-years-old actor - one of Britain's greatest - has directed and starred in film, TV and theatre. London, though, has not seen him since his 1992 Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now Branagh is to make his long-overdue return, starring in a modern production of a play so powerful, "it punches you in the face".

At the National Theatre this summer - in his first appearance on the country's most important stage - Branagh will play the title role in Edmond>, american playwright David Mamet's shocking early play that follows a middle-class everyman's descent into madness, lust and murder. it will be directed by Edward Hall - son of Sir Peter - whose Macbeth starring Sean Bean and Samantha Bond is a box-office hit in the West End. Edmond is due to open in July as part of the NT's season of cheaply-priced productions. One third of the tickets for the Olivier Theatre will cost £25, and all the rest will be just £10.

The NT's artistic director Nicholas Hytner said: "Edmond is about an ordinary guy who gradually turns into a violent raging animal, and he spirals through several circles of urban hell to get there. It is as challenging a role as anything in contemporary theatre." Hynter added: "It is a particularly savage play. As Edmond spirals into this terrible searing urban hell he tries to buy sex, and ends up murdering a pimp and an out-of-work actress as the layers are peeled off him. he starts off an obedient middle-class white guy and turns into a great howling mass of misogyny, racism and violence."

"It is a play that punches you in the face." Bringing actors of Branagh's calibre to the National Theatre is a priority for Hynter, who will formally succeed Sir Trevor Nunn as its artistic director in April. He said: "I spoke to Ken very shortly after I was appointed and we starting (sic) talking about him acting and directing here." Hytner, who directed The Madness of King George, said of Branagh: "He has always been a major energy in British theatre and film. His energy, intelligence and invention, as well as his experience and authority in a big theatre, is something I felt we really needed here. He is absolutely the kind of major, charismatic actor we want at the National. He is a stage animal." Branagh is famous for his mastery of the great Shakespeare roles but Mr. Hynter said his NT debut "will certainly be a departure."

The actor was quickly persuaded to take the part, however. Hynter said: "Dealing with people who've done movies, some of them simply turn into Americans and they don't ever give you a straight yes or a straight no - but Ken isn't like that, he's still a theatre man." "The reason he wants to do the play - apart from being here at the National - is that it struck him with huge force. He responded to the extremity of Mamet's writing. Great plays take to their extreme the furies and insecurities that drive all of us to some degree or other - and great actors want to be in those great plays."

1982: Branagh makes his West End debut in Another Country - six weeks after graduating from drama school. He goes on to wow audiences at the RSC and form the Renaissance Theatre Company with actor David Parfitt. 1988: Branagh ventures into film, starring in and directing Henry V. It is a huge success, but some critics accuse him of "hubris". 1991: Hollywood calls. He directs and stars in Dead Again opposite his then-wife Emma Thompson. 1996: directs and stars in Hamlet opposite Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal and Dame Judi Dench. 1998: Woody Allen persuades Branagh to star in Celebrity with Leonardo DiCaprio and Melanie Griffith. 2001: wins an Emmy for his performance as SS leader Heydrich in the TV drama Conspiracy. 2001: directs The Play What I Wrote in the West End - a huge success. 2002: plays Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

2002: returns to his roots playing Richard III at Sheffield's Crucible - to rave reviews.

Photos from this production at the National Theatre are here.

Editor's Note: The above summary from the Evening Standard neglects to mention Branagh's excellent starring role in Shackleton, and his role in the film Rabbit Proof Fence.

Click here for Kenneth Branagh as Richard III.

Click here for Ralph Fiennes in Richard II and Coriolanus.

Click here for Alan Rickman in Private Lives.

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