Sexual perversity on campus

Oleanna, David Mamet's contentious two-hander, is returning to the West End
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The Independent Culture

THe American actors Aaron Eckhart, 36, and Julia Stiles, 22, are to play the leads in a new West End production of David Mamet's controversial play Oleanna. The drama, about a college professor accused of sexual misconduct by a female student, depicts two characters locked in a conflict of language, sex and power.

THe American actors Aaron Eckhart, 36, and Julia Stiles, 22, are to play the leads in a new West End production of David Mamet's controversial play Oleanna. The drama, about a college professor accused of sexual misconduct by a female student, depicts two characters locked in a conflict of language, sex and power.

Oleanna's UK premiere was at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in June 1993, when David Suchet and Lia Williams took on the roles. "I have deliberately cast younger actors in this near-mythical power struggle between two people, to reinforce the ambiguity of the piece, both psychological and sexual," says the director Lindsay Posner.

His casting instincts are acute: of late, he has directed Robert Lindsay and Geraldine Somerville in Nick Dear's Power, and Martin Clunes in Tartuffe for the National Theatre; his production of Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago at the Comedy Theatre was a sell-out. And he's confident about Oleanna: "This is a play not just for the Nineties, but for many a decade to come."

Aaron Eckhart, currently starring opposite Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman in the film Paycheck, has been closely associated with the film-maker Neil LaBute since starring in his 1997 examination of misogyny in the corporate workplace, In the Company of Men. Eckhart has also acted alongside Renee Zellweger ( Nurse Betty, 2000), Julia Roberts ( Erin Brockovich, also 2000), Gwyneth Paltrow ( Possession, 2002), Cate Blanchett ( The Missing, 2004), and recently with Hilary Swank in The Core. "The reason I was cast as John, the professor, is that it brings a new dynamic to the play," says Eckhart. "We are not trying recreate another production. I'm not trying to be Bill Macy [William H Macy played the role in the 1994 film] or David Suchet."

Julia Stiles can currently be seen in Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst. "We are having a lot of fun in rehearsals," says Eckhart, who has dreamt of being an actor since he was at high school. His acting heroes are "Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford. I'm just a great fan of great acting," he says.

His other love is surfing. "I have just bought a beach house in California. But surfing is like a religion or an occupation in itself. So if you have one passion - which for me is acting - it is very difficult to have another one. You have to give surfing a lot of your time and attention, so I'm not as hardcore as I was."

So does Eckhart regard John as innocent or guilty? "It is not interesting if he is one or the other. He has to be both, because this conflict creates the character," says Eckhart. "I haven't made a character judgement - obviously as I am playing the part, I have to validate the script and justify it. I think John made some poor decisions. But I don't know if the punishment fits the crime - until the end when he beats her up. That's bad, but until then he gets railroaded."



'Oleanna', Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1104), previews from 15 April

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