Theatre Royal Bath and Jonathan Church Productions
It doesn't seem to matter how many times I see Oleanna, it always leaves me bothered. David Mamet has written a strong dramatic play that can have you sitting on the edge of your seat and it is given a remarkably good production directed by Lucy Bailey. But it still feels like a flag fiercely waved in the conservative cause of disbelieving women’s complaints about the misbehaviour of men.
It opens to a university office where a teacher is on the phone trying to sort out details of a house he is buying. Behind him sits a student looking drained. She is waiting to speak with him about her grades and her difficulty in understanding the module he teaches on education.
It is an unscheduled meeting, but he tries to help her. She feels stupid and, in a very fine performance by Rosie Sheehy as the student Carol, seems initially on the edge of a breakdown. Jonathan Slinger gives an equally impressive performance as the amiable, smug, elitist liberal teacher John, who in a misguided attempt to demystify the expectations of educational institutions points out that tests are a con and grades a distraction. This just makes her panic. We see her imagining that he accuses her of being stupid.
By the second act, she has linked up with a university group and escalated to the tenure committee complaints that he is sexist, has been flirting with students, telling pornographic stories and offering her a high grade in exchange for her company. Act three adds the allegation of attempted rape.
In the process of making the claims, she grows in confidence, referring to him as a “little yapping fool” who “mocks the system for which you are the clown.” It's no wonder some reports of its performance in the 1990s claim there were audience members who cheered when he finally hits back.
He has done things we know are not helping the situation including talking too much, even cutting her off as she speaks, choosing to tell her when she is clearly very vulnerable, stories about himself that could be misunderstood and recklessly telling her the education she fears losing is a pointless “virtual warehousing of the young.” What's more, he physically tries to stop her from leaving the room at the end of act 2 which should be an automatic suspension leading to dismissal. Even so, what we see through the course of the play weighs more heavily against the claims of the woman.
It’s an exciting performance of a riveting story that is worth seeing, but I again find myself contrasting the play’s peculiar version of the world with the reality of how difficult it is for people to get anywhere complaining to institutions and how many obstacles women face trying to get anything done about rape.
In the year ending in March 2020, there were just 1.4% of rape cases recorded in England and Wales that resulted in suspects being charged. This week, an inquiry revealed there had been 700 complaints of abuse against children in Lambeth care homes that were ignored.
But why should it matter that Oleanna isn't a world I recognise. It's just fiction, isn't it? Surely no one believes it, do they?
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna