Wednesday 13 April
We’re almost 20 years on from the first production in Cambridge, Massachusetts of David Mamet’s controversial play, Oleanna, inspired by the legal battle between Anita Hill, a university law professor, and her former colleague and supervisor, Justice Clarence Thomas. The charge of sexual harrassment and abuse of power brought then is brought once again by Carol, Mamet’s initially diffident and tongue tied student, against John, her professor and tutor. Times have changed but the power of the drama, particularly within this university theatre in Nottingham, remains fully charged.
Always good to grab your audience from the onset as Matt Aston, director, and designer, Laura McEwen, do from the word go. The action on stage has begun by the time we enter the auditorium. Carol (Clare Foster) sits silently and nervously. John (Alistair McGowen), her teacher, fully engrossed on the phone, ignores her. The set, John’s study, reduces the stage area by half, creating a strong focus on the actors, ironically so near physically and yet so far apart in understanding, empathy and communication. The physical claustrophobia suggests we’ll be going nowhere fast.
In 90 minutes, three scenes, and no interval we follow the story of the student who comes for help with her course work, of the teacher who attempts ineptly, condescendingly and inappropriately to do so and of the charges and subsequent demise of one/ both of them in the process. It’s a very clever play in which every word, spoken and unspoken, is vital. Mamet gives us a variety of possibilities from which we can judge. Is this student really ‘so stupid’? Is her teacher so unaware? Is the situation a set up? Why is neither of them capable of listening? Undoubtedly these are traps that both parties would be much more aware of guarding against today. Think of assessments for teaching competence, the need for observers in vulnerable situations, not to mention training sessions to guard against discrimination. But you can’t risk proof life and human nature so that Mamet’s essential drama keeps its full relevance.
It’s a big ask of the two actors. Alistair McGowen describes the role as ‘ genuinely the hardest thing I’ve done’. He says that he and Clare feel nervous before every performance. The lines are complicated, often truncated, making little sense and not easily memorable, their main purpose being to show a lack of communication. Small movement is important. I liked Foster’s portrayal of the nervous student – facial expression and bodily twitchings, McGowen likewise, with his powerful spreading gestures indicating supremacy and control, and then, of course, Mamet’s all action twist at the end, leaving the audience stunned. Indeed the audience were incredibly focused – not a cough or sigh, so totally bound up in the situation were they and listening intently to every nuance and word. Damian Coldwell’s forboding music and sounds only confirmed the sense of doom.
So here’s a chance for Nottingham audiences to catch what can be described as one of Mamet’s most controversial plays, extremely well acted and produced and also well supported by what Lakeside describes as ‘contextualising events’ – 4 free discussion/lecture sessions to further explore the play. See www.lakesidearts.org.uk for more information