Seven months have passed since this new production of David Mamet’s incendiary contemporary classic Oleanna premiered at the Ustinov, representing a shining beacon of hope in the theatre’s Welcome Back season. But as we all know (all too well), Covid had different plans for us; January forced us all to offer a very unwelcome return to lockdown… and theatres across the UK returned to darkness.
June 2021, and the Theatre Royal Bath’s Lights Up season is well underway, with both the Ustinov and the egg joining in the fun and throwing their doors open again at long last.
While this new production of this powerful modern classic (returning to Bath immediately prior to a West End run) offers a sense of reinvigoration to our local cultural landscape, it most definitely doesn’t have ‘revival’ written all over it – it doesn’t need to; recent history away from the headline-grabbing pandemic headlines (remember them?) revived Oleanna for Mamet, not least of all during the height of the #MeToo movement.
Three decades before Harvey Weinstein was best known for making movies and way before Cancel Culture ruled the social media waves, the award-winning writer, director and author wrote this tense, two-handed drama that, by exploring the see-sawing power struggles between college student Carol and her professor John, put sexual politics in the centre stage spotlight, exploring themes around what does or does not constitute sexual harassment.
The setup is all present and, perhaps, politically incorrect (a girl and a man in an office with a closed door; a sofa possibly symbolising casting couch connotations.) But at first, Carol (Rosie Sheehy) is more young, snippy and frustrated than mature, guileful and angry, and John (Jonathan Slinger) apparently way too distracted, egocentric and boringly vainglorious to be threatening. Mamet’s occasionally hyperreal dialogue, meanwhile, is rarely unambiguous in intent so we’re never quite on clear-cut discomfit territory, but director Lucy Bailey skilfully keeps our focus on the fast-paced script by giving the two actors the space and pace to skilfully light all manner of proverbial fireworks just as, I believe, Mamet intended them to be lit.
Okay, so John comes across as a paternalistic master of mansplaining; even when he invites Carol’s opinion on any given subject, her responses are littered with his constant interjections: “Go on, yes, speak for yourself, yes, go on,” to the point where she can’t possibly get her own words in. He certainly doesn’t need to stand so close to her, nor place his hand on her shoulders when she cries, or allow his personal life to intrude on his professional life by constantly picking up the phone to deal with his own domestic dramas in Carol’s presence (boundaries? John doesn’t seen to know the meaning of the word). But does John promise Carol an ‘A’ grade in exchange for an intellectual two-way discourse on the topic of the whole point of higher education and academia… or in exchange for her ‘company’? Does Carol’s incessant note-taking flag up her thirst for clarity… or is she building an armoury of evidence against him? Has Carol seen behind John’s gaslit cloak of superficially amiable goodwill and mustered up the strength to call a power-abusing sleazeball to task? And has he really committed crimes deplorable enough to merit her formal complaint of gravely inappropriate behaviour, raising allegations that threaten to destroy his tenure at the college? All those issues (and many more beside) are is left to us to consider. But, when almost all between John and Carol has apparently been said and done (or not said and not done, depending on your personal perspective), few audience members will fail to find the final scene both literally and emotionally shocking.
Be warned: we’re possibly on date night fight club territory here. During various premieres between 1992-94, there were reports of couples splitting up mid-performance as audiences from New York to London cheered, booed and even physically fought during the play’s key scenes. Mamet, meanwhile, was accused by critics of either hating women, putting them on a pedestal or being too soft on ‘girls’ – even if you avoid bickering, you can expect all manner of conundrums to mull over long after the Ustinov’s lights go down.
But regardless of the visceral reaction route Oleanna leads you down, Mamet’s tour-de-force remains one of the most challenging, provocative and compelling late 20th century dramas, #AllToo relevant today.