Oleanna

David Mamet
Theatre Royal Bath and Jonathan Church Productions
Festival Theatre, Malvern

Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) Credit: Nobby Clark
Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) Credit: Nobby Clark
Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) Credit: Nobby Clark

#Metoo or Give me a break? Ever since American playwright David Mamet’s Oleanna hit the stage in 1992, coverage seems to have focused on which side of the argument audience members chose.

Mamet hardly needed a publicity agent with remarks such as: "night after night and couple by couple, the people would split down the middle... One or other would say 'I think he’s right', 'I think she’s right'."

What received less attention from headline writers is that whatever side one takes, this is a terrific, 75-minute intellectual brain-scorcher of a play. And this production has two brilliant actors with the power to apply the electrodes in the crucial parts.

Written at a time when sexual harassment cases were first achieving credibility, the story concerns John, a newly-appointed professor, and his student Carol, who files a case against him that threatens his tenure, and as a result his purchase of a new house, and eventually his marriage.

We see the gradual disintegration of his position of authority and a transference of power to the formerly timid Carol, while incomprehension of each other’s opinions travels in the opposite direction.

It would be simplistic to lay all blame for the disastrous outcome on either party, but the author’s judgement seems pretty clear.

John is bound by rules of professional behaviour, Carol is not. So by stepping beyond the normal boundary between mentor and his charge, by confessing his own personal problems, by using a metaphor about sexual relations, by laying comforting hands on the shoulders of a clearly distressed young woman, he is taking a risk, albeit with benign intention.

By the second act, however, her supine attitude has changed. It would be unkind to suggest that the former acolyte feels insulted that their chats have been constantly interrupted while he turns his back on her to answer urgent calls on his telephone. Rather, however, she is now acting on behalf of a group.

By the third, she is telling him what to do, which includes banning ‘questionable’ books from the university curriculum, including his own, and instructing him not to call his wife ‘Baby’.

One discovers that John, whatever his past innocence, is after all capable of outrageous behaviour. But it’s Mamet’s great achievement as a playwright to identify a rising, legitimate concern about elitism and sexism then to present such an unappealing, overzealous character as its champion.

The versatile Jonathan Slinger, one of my favourite actors, who has played many of the great roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company, is terrific as the professor. The delivery is perfect, and if his rubbery features were not expression enough, one could probably guess what is going on in his thoughts from every gesture of the hands, even at times the positioning of his feet.

Like Slinger, Rosie Sheehy, another, more recent RSC star, never lets the American accent slip, and pushes the contrast from mouse to rampaging tiger to startling effect. She certainly scared me.

It’s an intense duel. One can only imagine how draining this must be for these two superb actors going through the battle six, maybe seven times a week for months on end. Yet it all seemed wonderfully spontaneous, as if there were real blood on the floor.

And a last clue to Mamet’s view of things. The play is named after a folk song, mocking ambitions to set up a perfect community.

Oleanna transfers to the Arts Theatre, London, from Wednesday 21 July until October.

Reviewer: Colin Davison