Theatre review: Oleanna

This Mamet classic is as relevant and potent today as it was in the 1990s.


Earlier this week London’s Dominion Theatre was hosting a staged concert of Alan Menken’s musical version of A Christmas Carol. Like all shows it is, of course a very Covid-conscious production. The theatre had reduced its capacity to allow audience members to socially distance; everyone was temperature checked before entering; hand sanitising stations were everywhere and each member of the orchestra played their instrument from a three sided perspex booth.

These are the safest public environments outside the family home. Yet despite all this, and scant evidence that infections have been driven by theatregoing, Tier 3 restrictions have shut down this and every other show in London and elsewhere, while the public are allowed to pack indoor shopping malls such as Westfield where there is nothing like the same amount of precaution. 

For those in Tier 2 however there is still theatre to be had. And not just any theatre, but the kind that leaves the audience as numb as a heavyweight’s punch to the head. When Oleanna first exploded onto the stage in 1992 David Mamet’s pugilistic powder keg of a play was viewed as a stick with which to beat political correctness.

In the left corner there is John (played here by Jonathan Slinger), a professor at a prestigious American college. In the right corner there is Carol (Rosie Sheehy) a struggling student. The play’s uninterrupted 80 minutes is set entirely in John’s modern, book-lined office and constructed from a series of encounters between the floundering student and her tutor.

In the first of these Carol is an unwanted presence having arrived in John’s office without an appointment. But such is her distress over not understanding the coursework John makes time to explain where she is going wrong. During this conversation, which is peppered with Mamet’s trademark half-spoken, interrupted sentences, frantic phone calls from John’s wife inform him that a deal to buy a house — the spoils of his impending promotion at the college — is in danger of falling through. The play has a reputation. The audience reaction when it first appeared has gone down in theatre history. At the play’s climax some shouted "kill the bitch". Their hate was for Carol who asks and receives help, but then interprets John’s response through the prism of militant feminism that, we are encouraged to conclude, sees patriarchal oppression in the most innocent of male gestures.

So a question hovers over Lucy Bailey’s new production: Is John as innocent as he once seemed from the perspective of our post- MeToo era?

The answer — which is no — is a fascinating example of how public opinion can change the moral arguments contained within a play, without changing a word.

Slinger superbly conveys the confidence of a man with unquestioned licence to be as formal or as informal as he sees fit.

But Sheehy is just brilliant as Carol whose teary-self loathing morphs into the poise of a ruthless prosecution lawyer as the transference of power between the two becomes total.


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