Gripping theatre

2008-03-13 00:00

A male teacher, a female student, light blue touch paper and retire. Written in 1992 when sexual harrassment cases in the U.S. were headline news, David Mamet’s Oleanna is still a potent piece of theatre, frustrating and infuriating by turns. It provides two showcase roles for performers. Both Tim Wells and Janna Ramos-Violante turn in top-notch performances, skilfully handling Mamet’s famously stylised dialogue that blurs the lines between theatricality and realism.

This is an excellent production directed by KickstArt’s Steven Stead, though a bit more care might have been taken with Wells’s costume; in one scene he looks more like a funeral undertaker than a varsity professor. His character, John Gray, is the key to the play; on the verge of tenure, buying a new house, coping with marital problems, he manages to be simultaneously pathetic and patronising.

In the first scene (there are three in all) he is with a student, Carol, reviewing her grade. She is apparently out of her depth, his approach is part-hectoring, part-lecturing. He illustrates a point with an inappropriate sexual reference and when she is emotionally upset he tries to comfort her.

The second scene turns the tables and Gray finds himself on charges of sexual harrassment and his tenure threatened. This is where the play falters, or does it? In some respects it all depends on the prejudices of the viewer. In the previous scene all the language has been male-orientated, and Gray comes to represent all the unthinking — and unquestioned — power of a patriarchal system. Yes, ultimately he is provoked, but the nub seems to be that he is provokable in the first place.

That the play frustrates and infuriates is its dramatic intention: audience members visibly and audibly respond as events unfold on stage, not least at the insistent phone interrupting crucial moments. I was tempted to answer it myself. And you have to hold yourself back from wanting to get up on stage to shake everyone into sensibility.

Sometimes that applies to the play itself. Is the student character suddenly too articulate and assertive in the second scene? Is Mamet really clear about his intentions? Is he obfuscating rather than illuminating?

Occasionally, like the student to the professor, I felt like demanding, “Why can’t you say what you mean?”. Maybe the playwright is a victim of his own patriarchy? Whatever. Oleanna is a powerful, gripping piece of theatre. So much so that the two performers might consider foregoing a curtain call as it undercuts what immediately goes before.

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