Review: The Shawl, Arcola Theatre

With the lure of an Oscar-nominated actress and within walking distance of my flat, it did not take much to convince me to go and see The Shawl, a short but punchy play by American playwright David Mamet. The venue was the Arcola Theatre, the innovative Hackney venue which is pioneering a wide range of sustainable activities including the attempt to become the world’s first carbon neutral theatre.

The play is about a conman-like psychic John, played by Matthew Marsh, who is attempting to fleece Miss A out of a large inheritance, whilst teaching his young protégé Charles the tricks of his trade. Miss A has her own agenda in visiting the psychic though and Charles is less interested in real learning than just making a quick buck. Over four short acts, the issues of trust and betrayal in the shadow of greed are examined and the question is asked “is there such thing as an honest charlatan?”

As the aforementioned Oscar nominee, Elizabeth McGovern is quietly assured as Miss A, giving a strong performance from the early desperation for answers, through the righteous anger at being deceived, to a closing air of beatific calm after the climactic reveal. Paul Rattray as Charles, the younger associate of John, is the weakest link here. Largely because he has little to do really, but I didn’t really feel his presence in the scenes he was in either. He didn’t really convince as the more greedy, duplicitous side of the partnership, and the chemistry between Charles and John never really took off (indeed I am not 100% sure that they were in a gay relationship although Wikipedia tells me otherwise).

But this is Matthew Marsh’s play. He’s the one constant presence in all four scenes and is spell-bindingly captivating throughout, whether as the showman channelling an old spirit to commune with the dead, employing his intuitive trickery on his victim or contempuously exposing the tricks to Charles. Despite his chosen profession, John does have some integrity in his craft as he tries to pass this on to Charles, and Marsh skilfully plays up this humanity by showing that the greed which drives the younger man is not the only motivating factor for himself, rather he wants to be able to give people what they want.

Presented with the bare minimum of staging, the focus here is purely on the acting and the sharp words of Mamet’s pen, and this is to the credit of the production. It is swift without seeming rushed, and yet not too brief that one feels short-changed. With the extremely reasonable pricing at the Arcola, I would strongly suggest making the trip to Hackney to see this play.

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