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National Theatre, London

Ursula Strauss

David Mamet's Edmond is a journey into darkness, one man's descent into the entwined crimes of misogny, racism, homophobia and violence.

A bored and emotionally numb Edmond decides to leave his wife and wanders through a series of misguided and increasingly violent interactions with call-girls, pimps, pawn-brokers and the assorted people of the night. Misunderstanding his own need for connection, in each scene he endeavours to make the contact a transaction over which he is in control.

When he finds his control slipping or that, in fact, he is the one being exploited, he responds with increasing violence and rage, like a thwarted child. Mamet shows us the ugly face of American self-gratification and the irony is that the things that Edmond thinks he needs (sex, attention, protection) are not what he really needs.

The action moves forward in a succession of vignettes, mimicking the structure of a morality play. Edmond is shown increasingly sordid and distasteful aspects of himself, until he is desperate for deliverance. The logical consequences of the threatened masculine identity are nothing new in terms of the stage and screen - however, Mamet's use of dialogue in exploring the causes of these dilemmas is most astute.

Throughout the play Edmond gabbles half-baked philosophy, trying to invoke dictums of common sense, commercial aphorisms or barely remembered fragments of literature in a desperate and largely futile attempt to ground himself in some kind of meaning. Edmond blames his murder on having 'drunk too much coffee', implicating the whole of his existence in his crime.

There is much that is good about Edward Hall's production, although at times (probably due to the very large cast) it has a workshoppy air. Michael Pavelka's design cleverly conjures up the fetid metropolis in the most minimalist fashion, with the use of sound particularly effective in the production. Kenneth Branagh effortlessly holds the attention throughout, playing both the comedy and maintaining the tension with equal effectiveness.

Nicola Walker, as the neurotic waitress/actress, is a completely identifiable character, conveyed with humour and tragedy. The well-played comic moments are, in fact, what keep the audience going throughout this at times gruelling piece, however, it never becomes a black comedy - the message is too dark to be laughed away.

The problem with Edmond is the ending - although his descent into hell is signposted and gradual, we have only one scene in which he has turned the corner, and as a result, this seems slightly facile. In the final scene where Edmond and his cellmate (Nonso Anozie) discuss the meaning of life outside the prison, the concepts remain as fragile and fragmentary as they were previously. Edmond has not discovered any answers - there is a kind of amorality to this scene, as the turbulent events that led him to prison seem all but forgotten.

The kiss with his cell-mate at the end symbolises Edmond's facing his fears, stepping away from the hatred and insecurity that had led him into violence and murder. The child-like kiss seemed a little too chaste, as it hardly removed Edmond from the immature world of his half-baked beliefs and belligerent misogyny. However, a more sexual kiss may have detracted from the message that it is not sex that Edmond needs. What Edmonds finds at the end is not so much an answer but an answering voice - and it is in this genuine connection that he finds peace.

Till 4 October

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