This production of Oleanna manages the unusual trick of making the play seem completely new. This is the work of director Lindsay Posner who had a major London success last year with the playwright's Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
Oleanna is a two-hander that explores gender relations on an American campus. An egotistical liberal professor of education, John takes pity on Carol, a disadvantaged female student who is desperately struggling with his course and the book that he has written as a basis for it.
He is a successful man in his prime who has just achieved the ambitions of tenure and the money for a new family home. By the end of Act 1 and a very early interval, the professor seems pompous but sympathetic and the student inadequate.
From there, she begins to upstage him in every sense, as he faces accusations that quickly escalate from the mild to the criminal. At first, he doesn't realise the gravity of the problem and despite his intelligence, continually digs himself in deeper.
The reason that this production is different is that Julia Stiles' student seems unequivocally malign and despite protestations to the contrary, appears keen to destroy Aaron Eckhart's professor just to prove a point. Where usually John seems sexist to the extent that he deserves his fate and elicits little sympathy, this time he is a victim. Without apparently doing anything very wrong, he loses all of the crutches that support his life.
This reading of the play loses some of its depth and significantly alters the balance between the characters. Eckhart is generally believable both in success and failure. Miss Stiles is almost invisible to start with but really shines as her character gains in confidence and strength. In particular, she delivers a magnificent speech denunciating the man that she believes must pay for his sins.
The Pinteresque language feels forced as it is slowed and the pauses and repetition are emphasised. This diminishes the play's feeling of naturalism.
Christopher Oram's modern, minimalist set fits the production and Howard Goodall's lighting makes a big impression, generally very bright, preventing the characters from hiding but toned down to emphasise Miss Stiles' nobility in her big speeches.
The audiences will flock to see two American film stars on the London stage. Some may feel that the 70 minutes on stage lacks a little of the rhetorical weight that one has come to expect from Oleanna. Even so, they will not be disappointed by the performances and will enjoy their evening in the company of the big names.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher