“Misogynist Mamet.” “Oleaginous Oleanna.” Judging by social media feeds, this revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna, now at the Arts Theatre in London, has reignited the fiery passion people feel towards both the playwright and this play.
Nothing here goes further than the first read.
Carol (Rosie Sheehy)-a somewhat shy, anxious student-has met with her Professor (John) in his office. Terrified of being flunked, she wants to know her latest grade, which seems to be lower than expected. She talks of doing exactly as she is told in lectures but of being unable to understand anything.
John (Jonathan Slinger)-distracted by his upcoming tenure and the associated property purchase-talks of wanting to help a student who, he says, reminds him of himself. He proclaims them equals, breaks accepted structural norms, shares rambling personal stories and attempts to provoke argument. He offers to do more 121 sessions because he “likes her”.
We then see the events unfurl as the action of this first meeting leads to accusations of inappropriate behaviour, sexism, and ultimately, rape.
Witnessing a war
When Oleanna premiered at London’s Royal Court in 1993, it was labelled a response to ‘political correctness gone mad’. It was hailed and decried in equal measure.
The original John, David Suchet, spoke of audience members telling him they wanted to “stand up and shout ‘Kill the bitch’” in the third act. (Heterosexual) couples ferociously argued their opposing views as they left the theatre.
The power of the script is in the forced proximity of these two protagonists, both resolute in the righteousness of their opposing, unswerving beliefs. We are witness to a non-negotiable war that takes place over three short acts.
It is not merely a battle of the sexes. It is a fight for the rights assigned to class, to privilege, to authority. It is a war to reclaim power.
Phew. It’s incendiary stuff.
Except here, it isn’t.
A light rally of opinions
Director Lucy Bailey has opted to underplay the emotion that’s expected with such passionate argument. Instead of a fight for power, we have a light rally of opinions.
She has the actors eschew the guidance provided by the hyper-realism of the script. Mamet’s lines cut over each other, interrupt, repeat and divert. Comments are thrown away to return spear-like and pierce their initial self-aggrandising pomposity. It is written as a stream of consciousness that should flow between the actors.
Here, lines are delivered precisely to the beat. They are less interrupted, more tightly cued.
It’s never clearer than in the interruptive phone calls John takes. Their one-sided nature should reveal more about John than his self-proclamations ever could. But all we see is an actor pausing before his next line, rather than listening to the unheard responses.
When Slinger cites John’s own words as written in the accusing statement, his delivery is not dissimilar to when he initially said them ‘off-the-cuff’. The case against, and for, John is that his prejudices and self-importance are inherent. It is why he feels so affronted by the accusations made against him.
When the words are clearly as rehearsed, this argument falls flat.
Directing by numbers
Nothing here goes further than the first read.
Anger simmers but never boils. Painful self-revelations never seem to hurt. Disbelief only seems like mild surprise.
Mamet contains everything in the four walls of the Professor’s office. Stage directions describe just a desk, two chairs and a telephone. This gives an excuse to the invasions of space John continually makes that are, in his mind, acceptedly paternal rather than predatorily sexual.
Bailey seems uncomfortable to move away from directing by numbers. She appears to fixate on making sure the actors ‘fill the space’ and punctuates every few pages with a bout of stage circling.
You can count the blocking as Sheehy traverses the area in that way nobody ever does in real life. Start centre stage. Head upstage right. Curl round downstage left. Pause and do some wistful middle-distance staring. Like people do when they have secrets and stuff.
Then there’s the sofa. Been at the desk too long? Let’s do a shufty over to the sofa. Why? Well, hopefully, it will make up for the lack of pace change.
(What is it with the sofa anyway? Is the provision of a sofa a rite of passage in American education given just before tenure? Or is it just a glaringly obvious dumbass visual metaphor for the casting couch? In case we forget the whole Weinstein vibe. I dunno. You decide.)
Why bother with all that acting shit?
The second act is where John shows his true colours. It’s here we see how dismissive he is of the views of others simply for not being his own. It’s here we see Carol gain her voice. Her growing confidence means she won’t take being spoken over so easily. But she still finds self-belief difficult.
Why bother with all that acting shit though? It’s easier to use visual cues to show the balance of power shifting instead. Dress Carol more smartly and have her sit with a better posture. And make John slightly more hunched. Job done.
By the third act, John, having slept in his office for two nights, is all unkempt hair, wrongly buttoned shirt and mostly foetal. Meanwhile, Carol, in a smartly fitted top and black heels, strides purposefully – though needlessly – around the room with her head thrown back.
If this is a comment on the link between physical appearance and confidence, making her look like a sitcom “businesswoman” sits uncomfortably.
It feels particularly derivative in a play like Oleanna.
A passionless production
The lack of emotional depth douses any of the fiery passion that the audience may have brought along. In place of anger at – or support for – the comments either character makes, there are just giggles. Choosing which character to side with is less important than choosing which tube line to take home.
It’s unsurprising that by the time the final argument escalates into violence, nobody in the audience flinches.
In what is perhaps the least believable fight I have witnessed for a good while, the actors dance around the stage – using the whole area, naturally – pre-empting slaps, throwing props that weren’t in the way and shaking bodies as though participating in a silent disco.
The programme names Philip D’Orleans as Fight Director. No biography is included for us to ascertain whether this was just a bad day.
Is Mamet sexist? Does Oleanna attempt to legitimise the male viewpoint of self-appointed privilege? Is cancel culture the only way to resolve decades of imbalance? Whatever your views, this passionless production of a play that creates so much passion adds nothing to any of these arguments.