This production of David Mamet’s play Oleanna is almost unwatchable, which is to say it’s excellent. Mamet’s play made audiences uncomfortable when it premiered in 1992 and, despite many years and scandals since, this drama about sexual harassment remains unbearably tense. This rendition, by Sydney Theatre School and Actors Not Feelers, is particularly excellent. Jerome Pride and his real-life acting student Grace O’Connell perform with all the delicate balance this play requires — each character is both sympathetic and horrifying. It’s not easy to take a side here. All you can do is watch the carnage unfold.
This is a brilliantly discomfiting production of a very disturbing play — at times, you want to run out the room just to get away from the approaching combustion of this power struggle
Oleanna (the title is taken from a folk song about an imagined utopia) is a series of scenes between a university professor and his student. Carol first arrives in John’s office to inform him that she can’t understand anything in his course, even though she’s “done everything [she’s] told.” John’s just been granted tenure and is about to buy a new house, but takes time in between phone calls to pontificate at Carol and attempt to console her — Pride is extremely adept at making John both a pompous ass and a well-intentioned, intelligent man. The ensuing scenes are nail-bitingly horrific. Carol accuses him of sexual assault and John’s life falls apart around him, but it’s hard to sympathize with either the accuser or the accused. As Carol tells him, the mere fact that she feels an incident has occurred means that he is guilty. But, she’s hardly a victim — O’Connell at first seems like she has too much natural intelligence and dignity for the part, but her portrayal of Carol’s mendacity in the final scenes is brutal and chilling.
The play doesn’t require very involved staging, but what’s needed is provided and the tech cues for John’s ringing desk phone are crisp. The focus here should be on the performances: nothing gets in their way and they are on the whole very strong, although perhaps a trifle overdramatic in the final scene. O’Connell is tight-lipped and furious in the first act, but when the dynamic shifts, she finds a calm, controlling side to Carol. This girl, who once couldn’t understand a thing on the syllabus, plays John’s own game better than him, throwing words back at him like she’s invented them. Pride is at first sympathetic, coming off as a kind-hearted professor, but his uncomprehending reaction to Carol’s accusation throws John’s utter complacency into light. The fact that Pride and O’Connell are actually teacher and student makes for a believable dynamic, but it’s a painful reminder of gendered, ageist power structures.
This is a brilliantly discomfiting production of a very disturbing play — at times, you want to run out the room just to get away from the approaching combustion of this power struggle. Mamet’s play is still relevant because it forces audiences to take a very difficult position on an extremely triggering subject. Some productions would take the easy route of allowing us to believe one character over another. This one chooses neutrality — it’s hard to watch, but close to Mamet’s intended effect.