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Greater London
posted/updated: 06 Jul 2013 -
Oleanna
David Mamet
society/company: New Stagers (directory)
performance date: 03 Jun 2013
venue: Wandsworth Museum, 38 West Hill, Wandsworth, London, SW18 1RX
reviewer/s: Caroline Jenner (Sardines review)


David Mamet’s play ‘Oleanna’ is a fascinating two hander which looks at the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students. Mamet named the play after a satirical 1853 Norwegian folk song about an idyllic society where men are heroic breadwinners and women are happily submissive. I was lucky enough to see the London premiere in 1993 directed by Harold Pinter and starring David Suchet and Lia Williams. It is a play that haunts you once you have seen it and one which you have to constantly reevaluate as each comment, gesture or nuance changes the way you feel about John and Carol, the protagonists, who are both deeply flawed and who throughout the play rarely agree or understand each other.
Ultimately about the destructiveness of miscommunication and political correctness the play holds clear resonances with today’s society, with John’s belief that everyone does not need to go on to further education to be fulfilled, an irony considering the current educational climate that seems to be encouraging everyone to try for university – whether academia would suit them or not! Equally with the growing awareness of the way litigation is always just around the corner all teachers nowadays would sit firmly on their hands and would have had it drilled in to them throughout teacher training that, however distraught a student, physical contact is never an option.

The play is divided into three acts and runs for 80 minutes. This means that there is an intensity to the piece which was well established in this production by the New Stagers, who were putting on their first performance in Wandsworth Museum. This was an ideal venue as the space was a small educational room, full of boxes of bits and pieces which served well as a backdrop, although the action was focused on one corner of the room where rostra had been set up with two chairs, a desk, a standard lamp and one or to props. The simplicity meant that we were never distracted from the main focus – the interplay between the two key characters.

Jason Marchant played John, the pedantic, slightly pompous professor awaiting tenure approval, who has agreed to meet Carol, Rebecca Duke, a young student from a depressed background who is failing his class on modern education. In an attempt to engage with her he mocks the university system that she venerates, whilst fielding a series of calls from his wife. He advises and coaxes Carol to come to see him for individual tutorials in a way he sees as friendly and fatherly and she sees as sexist and threatening. The play ends with her not only filing a complaint with the tenure board but accusing him of rape.

The director Ian Pring, had the characters sitting on opposite sides of the desk for most of the production which helped to emphasise the great divide between these two disparate individuals. With each phone call John moves away from the desk distancing himself from the student and breaking the link that he had clearly been trying to establish, creating a chasm of misunderstanding that seemed to grow wider after each phone call. As the power begins to shift from John to Carol we see at one point them circle the desk and she ends up in his seat – a clear indication of the changing dominance between them. Costume also helped to show the change. In the opening scene they are both dressed casually, by the second scene with the formal complaint on the desk between them he is wearing a suit and she wears a smart dress in simple black and white. By the final scene John’s shirt sleeves are rolled up and the tie is disheveled whilst Carol now has a smart jacket over her dress, even her changing hairstyles helped to add to the growing strength of Carol’s position.

Mamet’s style of writing is extremely staccato with constant overlapping and interruptions which makes this an extremely difficult play to deliver naturally. This is not made any easier by the incredible alteration in the character of Carol, who by the second act has changed from intimidated and fairly slow to assertive and much more erudite. The play feels like a collision of words where each sentences crashes into the next with no one ever quite finishing what they were trying to say. Mamet said himself that his plays were text driven and that if the actors just say the lines and don’t dawdle, the play will take care of itself.

Jason Marchant played John as a vulnerable figure, almost trapped by some of the educational values he holds to be worthless but which have brought him to the position he now holds. He seemed to almost stammer and become confused as he tried to express his understanding of Carol’s feelings and fears so that in the final scene the audience genuinely feels sorry for the man who has been stripped of everything he felt he had earned through his teaching career.

Rebecca Duke spoke with a stiffness which made her speeches quite fragmented and sometimes difficult to follow. Her anger clearly comes partly from her inability to find the words to express her feelings and as such the stilted delivery worked well in the first scenes and left us wondering in the later scenes where she had suddenly found this much more scholarly vocabulary. She made us question the motive for her behaviour with the references to ‘her group’ and the callous presentation of a series of demands in the final act which stacks the deck firmly back with John whilst her continued lack of understanding of John’s vocabulary served to reinforce the fact that she seemed to have been groomed for this role; to take down the pompous, opinionated professor who mocks the educational values that so many of his students hold dear.

Rebecca Duke spoke with a stiffness which made her speeches quite fragmented and sometimes difficult to follow. Her anger clearly comes partly from her inability to find the words to express her feelings and as such the stilted delivery worked well in the first scenes and left us wondering in the later scenes where she had suddenly found this much more scholarly vocabulary. She made us question the motive for her behaviour with the references to ‘her group’ and the callous presentation of a series of demands in the final act which stacks the deck firmly back with John whilst her continued lack of understanding of John’s vocabulary served to reinforce the fact that she seemed to have been groomed for this role; to take down the pompous, opinionated professor who mocks the educational values that so many of his students hold dear.

Neither character is particularly likable, but both have a point, and who you side with in the first two scenes may depend on whether you are a man or woman, a teacher or a student or maybe just the mood you are in when you walk into the auditorium. We are left with the question is either of them right or wrong and perhaps that is the genius of this play.
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