Not a review for the time I got drunk on a trip to the Massachusetts capital and woke up the next morning hitched to a local, but for David Mamet’s play and my third Melbourne Theatre Company visit this year. With poetic repartee, Claire and Anna, together again after a long time apart, spar when their reunion doesn’t go quite as planned. Anna has found herself a “protector”, a man who is devoted to her and who can keep her (and Claire) in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Claire has also met someone new, but her disclosure—that of being in love with them—is much more devastating.
As the kind man trying to sell us programmes for the play explained to me, a “Boston Marriage” is a term coined around the nineteenth century and used to describe two females who live together. I am a sucker for a kindly salesman, so I can now tell you that the programme elaborated on that, explaining that the situation was often that the women were unmarriageable, or wanting to stay free of the constraints of education-ending marriage, or in love. The “Boston” aspect came from the fact that many universities opened up nearby at the time. Mamet’s play is set in the Boston itself in the late 1800s, in Anna’s luxuriously decorated townhouse, and populated by three women: Anna, Claire, and Anna’s maid, the slightly unhinged Catherine. The parts are performed by (respectively) Pamela Rabe (God of Carnage, reviewed here), Margaret Mills (many things I haven’t seen) and Sara Gleeson (Poor Boy, reviewed badly by me in a different, even more disjointed blog I refuse to link to).
As Mamet himself says, “[Mine is] a poetic language. It’s not an attempt to capture language as much as it is an attempt to create language.” Well, that’s all very well and good, but nothing screams “you’re watching a play” more than people having lengthy conversations without a single realistic moment in them. While Claire and Anna come up with wordy zingers every few seconds and the audience laughed, I couldn’t enjoy it. This is obviously personal preference; consensus from eavesdropping on the crowd as we picked our way outside was “oo-er, that was lovely” and “there’s been a few disappointments so far this year, but that was wonderful”. I would like to say that I could appreciate it as an art piece, but I just found it frustrating hearing them so ridiculously melodramatic and eloquent while steeped in grief, and the characters really all just came off as unlikeable. The accents felt wrong, but perhaps that’s just because the script meant I couldn’t disconnect from the fact I was seeing naturally Australian-accented actors in front of me speaking in American.
I did laugh at some of the jokes, and thought the costumes were absolutely divine. Some of their quirks as a couple played out nicely, as Anna tried desperately to remember the word she needs to use and clicks her fingers at Claire, who will respond. Chris and I do this all the time, often for unbelievably easy words, as portrayed in Boston Marriage by Anna: “Agricultural sites...” with Claire supplying “Farms.” However, I didn’t like this play. It felt far too forced, with plot contrivances that I saw coming and the use of swear words from otherwise innocent and articulate mouths to get a rise out of the crowd. (Oh my, the maid just said ‘fuck!’ How droll. And so on.) Seeing the rich swan about being rich can often be insufferable, and watching them being cutting towards the hired help is always guaranteed to make me angry. Perhaps I was a timid Scottish maid in a past life, because Anna’s scathing attitude towards Catherine garnered much mirth from the crowd and a stony-faced glare from me. The ye olde speak of the late nineteenth century can also be hard to keep up with—happily, a bashful MTC staff member agreed with me on this—and by the end I was just plain bored with their yammering. Did they love or hate each other? More importantly: did I like them enough to care? I didn’t, and by the end I was just waiting for it to end so I could go out for the fancy dinner we’d planned afterwards. In conclusion: the play didn’t come through with the goods, but Red Emperor’s dumplings sure did.