Almost 30 years ago, while working as an assistant stage manager, Janet Moran arrived on the first day of a new job to discover two men arguing bitterly, trading insults and accusing each other of ending their careers. She decided to intervene, interrupting to try to start a lighthearted conversation about the weather.
Moran laughs as she recalls the incident. The men weren’t fighting, it turned out: they were rehearsing Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet’s play about power-obsessed Hollywood executives. In it, the pair make a wager on the seduction of a woman assistant. It was “a real smack in the face” to walk in and see what the men were doing, says Moran.
That was at the beginning of her theatre career, for a production directed by Declan Hughes, who had seen the original Broadway run of Mamet’s play in 1988, featuring Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver as the executives and Madonna as the assistant. When we speak, Moran is preparing to direct her own production, which flips the characters’ sexes. Having women as the gatekeepers is a premise with obvious resonance given the appalling cases of rape and sexual harassment that Hollywood has had to confront in recent years. She sounds fascinated by the notion that women can seize power in the first place.
Moran, who was named best actress at this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, for her role in Eugene O’Brien’s play Heaven, began to write and direct her own plays a decade ago, bringing to her original projects the same versatility that has characterised her stage performances.
Those projects, which have ranged from multiple-role comedies to documentary plays, have had a satisfying sense of timeliness. The excellent comedy Swing, from 2013, which she wrote with Steve Blount, Peter Daly and Gavin Kostick, centred on two adrift individuals meeting at a weekly dance class, but it also made references to a bitter recession and to people being lost to emigration. “My own brother had just left, and that was a sad absence I wanted to speak to,” says Moran.
Securing Mamet’s approval was a coup. The playwright has shown resistance to such casting approaches in the past but he said yes to Shiels within the hour
The subsequent multiple-role comedy A Holy Show may have been based on a bizarre episode from 1981 – the hijacking of an Aer Lingus flight by an ex-monk – but, riffing on crises of faith in post-Catholic Ireland, it’s an intelligent play that’s difficult to imagine existing in a previous era.
She and Donal Shiels of Verdant Productions spoke about the possibility of her directing a follow-up; after a year of exploring options, Shiels suggested the gender-flipped version of Speed-the-Plow. It immediately sounded exciting as another play that could reflect the moment.
Securing Mamet’s approval was a coup. The playwright has shown resistance to such casting approaches in the past; he may have allowed the real-estate blowhards of his drama Glengarry Glen Ross to be played by women in some instances, but he rescinded the rights to a production of his play Oleanna, in Milwaukee, that cast a male actor in a female role. Mamet said yes to Shiels within the hour.
It could be seen as a project that comes with baggage. In Oleanna, a campus play about consent, Mamet portrayed a group of feminists as a terrifying mob trying to tear a successful man down. Some viewed it as an obvious, cynical response to Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during the process that preceded the judge’s confirmation to the US supreme court, in 1991.
After the drama literally roused audiences into shouting at each other, commentators began to scrutinise Mamet’s portrayals of women in more depth. “If women are not simply banished altogether (from such plays as American Buffalo, Lakeboat or Glengarry Glen Ross), they are peripheral figures, limited to the roles of sex object, punching bag or sometimes, when men need respite from the hurly-burly, dispenser of Tender Loving Care,” the New York Times remarked in 1993. More recently, Mamet’s play Bitter Wheat offered a veiled portrait of Harvey Weinstein as a complex individual; it could come across as tone deaf after #MeToo.
“I’m aware of how he presents himself. I think you can separate art from the person who made it, because when it meets its audience it is transformed into something meaningful,” says Moran, who sounds secure in her connection to the play, rather than letting the discourse impede her vision. With the characters’ sexes flipped, the play’s outcome now suggests a fascinating new conclusion: this time it is a man who is most likely to be spat out by Hollywood, not a woman. Is this Speed-the-Plow a revenge fantasy in response to the way creative industries have treated women?
Moran disagrees: gender is more pervasive within negotiations of power, she says. At its conclusion the play will now show a female executive rejecting her male assistant. “When it’s a young man that’s being thrown out at the end and not a young woman, there is something potentially available, which is the threat of violence.” The ambitious, manipulative newcomer who bats his eyelashes will be played by the young actor Macleod Stephen. “What is it for that character to use his sexuality to get ahead?” asks Moran.
She envisions the studio executive Bobby, played by Tara Egan-Langley, as surrounded by film scripts, deluged with pitches, and leveraging her power to seduce her assistant. “We all know that power corrupts, and what’s interesting about the play is that, once you have the desire to keep power, it makes you vulnerable. Bobby is vulnerable from the start because she is top dog, because of her ego, because she is a woman in her 40s looking to seduce a younger man.”
Instead of men parodying what they think women say, it becomes women parodying that which men think they say. When they’re together, they’re not talking about boys and clothes: it’s about money and power
Mamet’s satire of Hollywood likely still stings. When Bobby’s associate Charlie arrives with the promise of a big star for a new film, they build a ridiculously random plot around the actor, relying on woeful stereotypes such as the portrayal of African-Americans as criminals. (That the suggestion comes from Charlie, who is played by Jolly Abraham, an actor of colour, may seem like a subversive wink.)
More broadly, there is an opportunity to send up Speed-the-Plow’s originally macho commentary, such as its mocking of women as preoccupied by shopping and men. “Instead of men parodying what they think women say, it becomes women parodying that which men think they say. When they’re together, they’re not talking about boys and clothes: it’s about money and power,” says Moran (who, after we speak, needs to withdraw from Speed-the-Plow for health reasons; her work will still be “there at the heart of it”, says the production’s new director, Andy Crook).
It’s not lost on Moran that the gender flip gives women actors access to roles that were not originally available to them. “It’s exciting to hear women talk in a way that’s not often represented on stage,” she says. Eight years ago, at a Waking the Feminists public meeting, she spoke against a limited imagination closer to home: “Any female actor will tell you that a not insignificant part of her working life consists of playing girlfriends, wives and mothers – adjuncts to the male characters.”
Her original projects read as an expansion of those choices. If her multiple-role comedies are tapestried and rich for actors to play, the casting of nonactors in the documentary plays Looking for América (a portrait of her partner, who was a child refugee fleeing civil war in El Salvador) and Pure Mental (the broadcaster Keith Walsh’s journey through therapy) is also about creating new opportunities.
If such circumventions feel necessary, the system may still be crooked. The abuses of power in Mamet’s satire – the coercions of the casting couch – may no longer be as flagrant, but they live on in less obvious ways. “One of the good things about the past few years is that people have to take more responsibility for their behaviour, but bullying can be very nuanced and difficult to name. There are still power plays.”
Speed-the-Plow is at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght, from Thursday, April 6th, until Saturday, April 8th; the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, from Thursday, April 13th, until Saturday, April 15th; Ramor Theatre, Virginia, Co Cavan, on Wednesday, April 26th; and Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, on Thursday, April 27th