Damian took a long break from stage – 6 years – after he did The Misanthrope with Keira Knightley and Tara Fitzgerald at Comedy Theatre in 2009. And three seasons of Homeland, a season of Wolf Hall, three movies, an Emmy and a Golden Globe later, in 2015, he made a wonderful comeback to West End as Walter “Teach Cole” in David Mamet’s American Buffalo which went into history as the first (and second) time I saw my favorite actor on stage.
American Buffalo has “blue-collar desperation” at the heart of its story. It is about guys that never really make it. The three characters, Don, Teach and Bobby, more or less, span three generations — Don (John Goodman) is an older man, Bobby (Tom Sturridge) the young kid, and “Teach” (Damian Lewis) the middle-aged. They are not necessarily family; but they ARE, in a sense, three generations living the exact same life, and in Damian Lewis’ words, they “desperately long for a shot at their slice of the American dream.”
The play, in this context of three men hoping to make it, questions where “friendship” ends and “business” begins — how they do let money take power over their friendship — and makes us think about how big business and its “values” have changed the core “American values” held dearly for the longest time.
And it turns out the play makes more sense when heard than read thanks to the way David Mamet wrote the play to make mundane and profane conversations poetic.
Mamet wrote American Buffalo in “iambic pentameter.” Here’s a quick crash course for those of you that are not familiar with the term: An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (for example: de-lay). Stressed syllables are pronounced slightly louder, for a slightly longer duration, and at a slightly higher pitch than unstressed syllables. Pent means five and so a line of “iambic pentameter” consists of five iambs — essentially five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables — giving a certain rhythm to the conversations.
Here’s an example from American Buffalo:
“It makes no earthly difference in the world.”
With the stressed syllables highlighted, it looks like this:
It MAKES no EARTH-ly DIFF-erence IN the WORLD.
SeattleRep website explains: “Mamet’s plays usually contain terse dialogue that is chock-full of profanity. At first it might seem as if anyone could master Mamet speak just by spewing curse words, but Zachary Simonson, who plays Bobby, pointed out that the language in American Buffalo is actually very precise and measured. “There’s a term called ‘profane poetry’ which very well describes what’s going on,” he said. He explained that many lines are written in iambic pentameter, the same verse meter that Shakespeare used. These carefully crafted lines lend a rhythm to the dialogue that implies a variety of emotions as it fluctuates throughout the play. “I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything that’s this rich before,” said Zach.
I get to meet Mr. Walter “Teach” Cole late May 2015. Oh, what an unforgettable night at the theater! Damian makes you gasp as you follow him on stage. The energy he has on stage captures you, so much so that it is quite difficult to take your eyes off him even when “Teach” is just sitting quietly — eating his bacon and eavesdropping a conversation between Don and Bob. It is most probably because you know anything can happen with him anytime that you are at the edge of your seat waiting. Damian’s performance is a true tour de force that leaves you in awe… for a long time! In case you missed it, I reviewed American Buffalo in two parts, Act I and Act II — well… I had so much to tell about it 🙂
Before the previews start, Damian talks about his “pretty basic fear” about going back to stage!
“I’m nervous just about the reality of being on stage in front of 800 people and perhaps not knowing what your next line is. It’s a pretty basic fear. I’ve canvassed opinion from actors about what makes them nervous about being on stage, and almost all of them say it’s about worrying whether the next line will come.”
Ah, and this Francesco Guidicini portrait from the Instagram Sunday Times Stories attests to the fact that Damian embraces his “pretty basic fear” in his usual “effortlessly charming” manner 🙂
I remember an interview with Damian on YouTube from a couple of years ago, where he is asked about “the moment before stepping up to stage.” And he goes:
“It’s a sphincter tightening moment… It’s quite sweaty. And… I try to stay calm… I try to breathe… and, I try to do some Yogic breathing… just get everything as low and assented as possible.”
Well, the rituals seem to have paid off 🙂 Because Damian comes, sees and conquers the stage! American Buffalo is a SUCCESS from the first curtain to the last!
One big news comes in a tweet from the intermission on the Press Night!
WOW. I just cannot imagine how thrilled the actors feel knowing (they would know, right?) that the playwright is right there in the audience. That should be the beauty of staging a play by a living playwright — chances are, he will be there for your press night!
And the brilliant reviews pour in just after the Press Night with my favorite being Guardian’s “Damian Lewis is right on the money.” (In case you want see reviews in more detail, we blogged about them here).
And the Guardian quote makes its way to the poster outside Wyndham’s Theatre — with yours truly in front it 🙂
Next to his mesmerizing performance, Damian seems to be having the time of his life on stage — both with his wonderful acting, but also with his “Teach” look popping up from the 70s with the moustache and the giant sideburns! He draws a lot of giggles when he first appears on stage and he could not help it when asked by the press about what his wife, Helen McCrory, thinks about his ’70s moustache:
“She has a penchant for Seventies porn stars so it’s going very well, thank you.” 🙂
During the American Buffalo run, in an interview with Gold Derby mainly about Wolf Hall, Damian also briefly talks about American Buffalo. His words seem to second my perception about him having a great time on stage!
Several stars are spotted in the audience over the 10 week run, including James Purefoy, Kit Harington, Eddie Redmayne, Penn Jillette, Matthew Macfadyen and Ralph Fiennes… And, almost every day and night after the show, Damian makes a lot of fans HAPPY by taking his time to sign programmes, tickets and have selfies taken with them! Here’s a sweet collage that I made with pics I collected from fan shares on Twitter — take a look, maybe you’ll find yourself there with Damian 🙂 Thanks to all fans that shared their pics!
10 weeks gone with the wind and Damian says good-bye to American Buffalo in a tweet on June 27 Saturday just before his last two performances that day:
A few months later in New York: I am lucky enough to ask the last question in the Q&A following the conversation New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins has with Damian at New Yorker Festival. In fact, when it is my turn to ask, Collins says we are out of time. I don’t know what kind of a sad look I give to her but she says:
“OK, one more…”
Conversation events with Damian in the US are often good in their coverage of his screen work; however, maybe because Americans have not seen much of Damian’s stage work, most of which he did in London, there is almost no talk of theater. That is why I ask a question about American Buffalo and theater in general in the Q&A. Many many thanks go to my number one guy, Lewisto, for recording my question and Damian’s answer — you can hear it here. ENJOY!