by David Mamet
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Arts Theatre – until 23 October
If you want to see what a bunch of people who have been collectively shaken and stirred looks like, hang about outside the Arts Theatre on the fringes of Covent Garden just before 9.30pm. That is when the evening performance of David Mamet’s still-incendiary Oleanna gets out, and the expressions of bewilderment mingled with excitement and fury on the faces of departing audience members is quite something to see. Better still, get a ticket and experience this remarkable controlled explosion of a production for yourself.
First seen in New York in 1992, when the shocking ending regularly provoked outbreaks of fighting in the front Stalls, this superbly constructed two hander about a college professor being professionally and morally demolished by an apparently desperately insecure female student, feels more relevant than ever in the wake of the Me Too movement and in a modern landscape where the patriarchy is under pretty much constant interrogation. The London production was directed by Harold Pinter no less, who was famously angered by his original stars, David Suchet and Lia Williams, making explicit in an interview where their sympathies lay: Suchet felt student Carol was lying and out for blood while Williams countered that her accusations were 100% valid.
Pinter’s staging humanised the protagonists while a 2004 West End revival, with film stars Aaron Eckhart and Julia Stiles, played up the subtly heightened poetry of Mamet’s text, which is uncharacteristically unprofane right up until the very end when the obscenities rain down like missiles through the hitherto civilised canopy of academia. Lucy Bailey’s magnificent, technically flawless new production, first seen in Bath, sits somewhere between the two and may just be the best account of this punchy, provocative play I’ve yet seen.
Rosie Sheehy imbues Carol with a rich but troubled inner life and a tentative watchfulness, almost like a wounded animal…. or at least at first. I’ve never felt so invested in the character’s back story (which is never explicitly told) than here. More sympathetic but also spikier than some of her predecessors, this Carol makes the transformation from endlessly note-taking, walking inferiority complex to driven, sharply dressed, vengeful fury, constantly referring to a “group” that seem to be driving her motivation, with total credibility. It’s a terrific performance, delivered so authentically that it barely feels like acting.
Jonathan Slinger is equally good as John, the benignly patronising professor, thinking he’s helping Carol while simultaneously and unwittingly shooting himself in the foot, and negating her power. Watching him putting words into Carol’s mouth time after time, blurring the line between kindness and insensitive privilege, is as compelling as it is toe-curling, although his American accent wavers a little. His disbelief when his carefully constructed life comes tumbling down is brilliantly done, while his ultimate descent into violence is utterly chilling. The final couple of moments have never felt as brutal and unsettling.
Jon Nicholls’ sound design is subtly ingenious, the insistent but uncomfortable almost-music between scenes coming across as an aural equivalent of the gulf between what these two characters are saying to each other and what they’re understanding. Similarly, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting is naturalistic throughout but then chills down to a stark, white wash in the seismic final seconds as though we are watching specimens in a museum rather than real people. None of this is overly showy, but it all adds up.
Depending on your viewpoint, Carol’s table-turning on John could be seen as a satisfying riposte to him never letting her finish her sentences, as she and her “group” remint so much of what we, as an audience, have heard him say, and effectively put new words, or at least new meanings, into his mouth. Or is she just spiteful and mendacious? You have to see it to decide. There’s a rape allegation made and, for the first time in any Oleanna production I’ve seen, there is an ambiguity in the central relationship, and also in the work of fight director Philip D’Orleans at specific moments, that adds a whole new layer of fascination.
Every bit as relevant, if not more so, now than when it premiered nearly thirty years, Oleanna remains a peak in Mamet’s career (his more recent plays The Anarchist, China Doll and Bitter Wheat were pretty disastrous star vehicles) and has a complexity and breadth of viewpoint that exhilarates as much as it shock. I’d be surprised to ever again see it acted and directed as well as here. Unmissable.