Comedian’s take on David Mamet thriller

WRITERS are often commissioned to wrestle plays and books into film scripts – yet rarely translate in the opposite direction.

But playwright Richard Bean has customised a classic movie by master stage and screen writer David Mamet for Islington’s Almeida Theatre.

The 1987 thriller House Of Games is a characteristically stylised affair with punchy, overlapping dialogue and a devilishly twisty plot, centred around a smooth-talking conman, a wealthy psychiatrist and a series of deceptions.

Bean, who has past form with translations, notably Moliere’s Hypochondriac at the Almeida, has altered the piece’s pace, tone and style to make it work on stage.

“I wanted to do a more realistic play rather than the stylised jumping from scene to scene you get in cinema, where most scenes are two minutes’ long.

“I don’t think theatre works like that. From 7.30 to 8.30 can be one long scene and audiences kind of like that because they get deeper into it.”

While cinema allows for multiple locations, the stage version is confined to two, Margaret’s treatment room and the House of Games bar where Mike the grifter runs poker games.

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“A lot of the problems are technical. Everything outdoors in the film has to be brought indoors. Because you don’t have that cinematic horizon, there is always a bit of metaphor going on with theatre sets. So upstairs is Margaret’s academic ivory tower, while in the basement is the House of Games. It’s like a classic Scooby Doo – ‘don’t go down to the basement, evil happens there’, but they always do.”

One of the play’s themes is the lure of the exciting, seedy world of card sharks and confidence tricksters for such an upright establishment figure.

Bean had to flesh out Margaret who is “almost mute in the film”.

“You don’t get much sense of character or personality from the script, that’s how film works, because you can see so much of her face and her eyes that tells you she’s completely fascinated by this nether world. I can’t do that because the back row can’t see Nancy Carroll’s eyes, so I had to do it with words and back story to make her more three-dimensional.”

A university academic who has become wealthy by writing a bestselling self-help book, Margaret is missing something huge in her life.

“Mamet describes her as ‘exempt from experience’ and there’s a terrible irony that she is therapising people about their problems but knows zero about life.”

When a patient called Billy challenges Margaret’s legitimacy as an analyst, it prompts her to enter the House of Games and confront the gangster who is threatening to call in his gambling debt.

“She calls it negative transference but it’s a hard truth for her,” says Bean.

“If like me you’ve ever had therapy, you’ll know the only thing therapists say is, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm, time’s up.’ I had to write in a challenge that would prompt her to respond.”

Mike lures her into his underworld by asking her to identify the ‘tells’ of the gamblers.

Bean decided early that he didn’t want to “do an impression” of Mamet’s distinctive dialogue. And the former stand-up comedian seized the chance to insert some humour while he was at it.

“I have taken lots of dialogue from the film but it doesn’t need all those full stops or for the lines to be always interlapping. If you watch the film, there are hardly any laughs because it’s a straightforward Hollywood thriller which has to thrill. Theatre doesn’t work like that. If you see a play, whether a tragedy or a thriller, and there are no laughs it’s hard work. Looking at human beings scurrying about behind the fourth wall can always be funny, but the interrupted dialogue doesn’t allow the audience in to laugh. My script has full stops at the ends of sentences where the audience is allowed to laugh. If Mamet had written this as a stage play, he would have done something similar.”

Bean also has an original play opening at the Lyric Hammersmith this month. The Big Fellah deals with Irish American funding of the IRA by a firefighter who goes on to be involved with a terrorist atrocity on September 11, 2001.

It comes in the wake of last year’s controversial England People Very Nice at the National Theatre, a study of immigration in London’s East End which provoked angry crys of racism.

“All I did was write about the four years I lived in Bethnal Green and if people didn’t like the truth that’s their problem,” says Bean defensively, adding that playwrights are “scared of slagging off Islamic fundamentalism with good reason”.

He says that now we have legislation in place to outlaw racism, we should “grow up” and air the complexities of living in a multicultural society.

“We can no longer write polemics against racism because we know racism is wrong but it’s also kind of weirdly human. On some level we are tribalistic and we have to write about that.”

House of Games runs at the Almeida until November 6.