Review: Oleanna (Arts Theatre)

David Mamet‘s Oleanna was a deeply polarising play when it debuted in 1992, and the film a couple of years later still holds its power.

As the theatre programme reminds us, the 1994 premiere in London roused one elderly female audience member enough to make her almost shout “kill the bitch”. This is not a play you quickly forget.

I’m watching the play now as a middle-aged woman, not as the twenty-one year old student I was back then. I spent a quarter of a century working in academia; I know this space and these people. I also remember now what it felt like to be a female student in that environment.

This is an excellent play, which inevitably has grown new claws since the #MeToo movement. Should we always believe the accuser, even if the accused behaves unconsciously?

In academia, what about freedom of speech, safeguarding, and the lines of power? Are both characters here the product of a failing educational system? What is truth?

Jonathsn Slinger and Rosie Sheehy in Oleanna

John (Jonathan Slinger) an professor of twenty years standing in the academy, seeks tenure and enough stability to buy a house suitable for raising his family. In his office (I’ve never seen an academic’s room this neat) he displays his own book prominently, and is distracted by personal phone calls.

Across the desk is Carol (Rosie Sheehy), a student who grips her notes tightly and almost retreats into herself. She seeks her teacher’s help in understanding his lectures. She feels uncertain that she belongs, or can succeed. Protecting herself in her own space, she seems always on the verge of tears.

Whether or not these people are arch manipulators, flawed beings, or simply ships of different generations who pass but do not connect in a way other than collision, is still relevant today.

The actors give intricate and well-rounded performances; Mamet’s words are brought to life with weight and clarity. Every word and gesture matters.

Jonathsn Slinger and Rosie Sheehy in Oleanna

John is clearly comfortable with his “paternalistic” power; again and again he justifies his words by saying it is “his job” to challenge and provoke. He can be patronising, but he can also be human.

However, in Lucy Bailey’s production, he does sit too close, stand too high, lounges around, and, pivotally, touches Carol on the shoulders. We see this, we make up our own minds.

In the scenes that follow – three scenes, three meetings in a 80 minute play, where timelines are unclear – Carol changes her look, demeanour and command of language. Other than her connection with her “group” we do not know what motivates her, or why.

Her behaviour can be seen as cruel and vindictive, and yet we have seen what she has seen. Whether she is justified in her actions is left to us to decide: Mamet does not take sides; we do. Both John and Carol are flawed, both are antagonists, both are victims.

Jonathsn Slinger and Rosie Sheehy in Oleanna

The ending remains shocking, powerful, and somewhat ambiguous. My (male) guest at last night’s show was in complete agreement with me about the characters; he also noted a couple of things concerning what the ending line might mean. We also wondered about the play’s resonance were either character presented as a different colour or gender.

Oleanna is still a brilliant, yet problematic piece of drama. It isn’t as simple as being ‘pro-Carol’ or ‘anti-Carol’ as both characters cause feelings of revulsion as the play progresses, some sympathy, even. You can’t sit on the fence, and this is a conversation which we need to keep having.

You can watch Oleanna at the Arts Theatre – book here.

Image credit: Nobby Clark

LouReviews received complimentary tickets to review Oleanna.