THEATRE / When relevance is not enough

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IN THE clamour heralding the British premiere of David Mamet's Oleanna, what emerged most clearly - apart from the promise of a good old sneer at the lunacies of American political correctness - was a sense of envy: why aren't we producing plays of our own that expose the actors to howls of abuse and bring married couples to blows?

This piece, should you have been on a desert island, tells the cautionary tale of a well-meaning college professor (John) and a non-achieving student (Carol). He tries to repair her morale and holds her hand when she cries; she rewards him by filing a litany of complaints including everything from elitism to rape, which costs him his promotion, his house and finally his job. Notwithstanding the supine underbelly of American academe, this is pushing it a bit. As Robert Hughes says in Culture of Complaint: 'The number of conservative academics fired by the lefty thought police . . . is zero.' Still, Mamet could plausibly shrug off that kind of literal objection, and cite the supra-realist slogan: 'Not the facts, but the truth.'

So what is Oleanna about? Not the daily round of American university life; and not, I think, the last stand of the white middle- class male. In that respect, the play is much more even-handed than it has been painted. True, Carol is less a character than a hate-object: all abject despair at first, she then bounces back as a Red Guard of campus feminism, perverting everything John has said to serve her own bigotry. Agreed, no top dog is worse than a former underdog, but the transition is missing, so Carol switches from a pawn to a queen in the power game, both assembled

to fit the writer's convenience.

Her victim is almost equally short of redeeming features. He is an all-too recognisable product of the academic buyer's market, in which the consumer is always right. Nothing must be said to lower the student's self-esteem, or imply any superiority of authority or knowledge. To maintain the pretence of equality, John will even rubbish the process of higher education - while asserting his power through a smokescreen of 10-dollar words and a fractured syntax, and keeping his eye beadily fixed on the priorities of publication and tenure. Carol at least speaks her mind; whereas everything John says to her has been filtered through his private security system; and one irony of the piece is that even after all that weaselly circumspection he still falls into the black hole.

Any remaining options for short-circuiting the antagonists into black and white are rigorously obliterated in Harold Pinter's production. Its unspoken premise is that the characters are treading a sexual minefield. Anything may trigger it off; and the two performances wonderfully articulate Mamet's gift for converting tentative speech into dynamic rhythms, with words often bitten off in the middle, and John's apologies for interrupting Carol still preventing her from speaking. Even after war is declared, the voices remain quiet and reasonable. In print, Carol's speeches look like screeching diatribes. As Lia Williams plays them, it is as if she is advising a friend, or explaining something to a child. When she needs emphasis she just leaves echoing spaces between words. David Suchet has the more complex task of conducting this rogue tutorial while also receiving phone calls from an increasingly frantic wife; from which he develops an ignominious contrast between the calmly secure intellectual he takes himself to be and the jittery skin-saver he really is. Suchet works marvels with the apparently pointless repetitions of the dialogue. 'A pilot. Flying a plane. The pilot is flying the plane.' He attacks the first two phrases as if launching into a thrilling story. Then, with the repetition, he steps back to admire the effect: he is always acting, up to the moment when his civilised defences snap and he smashes Carol to the floor.

Perhaps intentionally, the show is persistently irritating. Why doesn't John switch the phone off? Why doesn't he answer Carol's accusations specifically; and why does Carol keep coming back for private meetings with an alleged rapist? The answer reveals Mamet's theme. Nobody, Irwin Shaw said, can stand investigation. And what the play offers is another losing round in the battle between liberal compromise and puritan conviction. It joins the line of Galileo and The Crucible as a moral fable of recantation. Audience reaction (including muted cheers here) attests to its relevance; but what a comedown from the birth of a new cosmography and the defiance of tyranny to questions of offending the student body by using words the kids don't understand. Truly, we live in diminished times.

Another drama of recantation, Mikhail Shatrov's Maybe looks back to the heroic past in the 50- year saga of two Trotskyite immigrants to the United States whose lives are shadowed first by Stalinist agents and then by the McCarthy hearings. Shatrov took the idea of the play from Vanessa Redgrave (who gives a mutedly sorrowful performance as its idealistic American heroine) and wrote it with Keith Reddin. Hopes of seeing this well-beaten stretch of American history in a new light are dashed. It is the old story of naming names for inquisitors who think Pushkin was a Red. Otherwise Braham Murray's production combines soap-opera dialogue with an unwieldy two- generation narrative which propels the middle-aged company into bewilderingly implausible flashbacks in which only Margaret Robertson, as a Polish agit-prop veteran, recaptures the body language of youth. Miss Redgrave finally confronts her generation's mistakes and allows a rebel daughter to make off on a student demo to Sarajevo; maybe the next generation will do better. In the presence of such sincerity one can only shut up.

A parting salute to a couple of lively additions to the ethnic scene. The more elaborate of them, Keith Khan and Diane Esguerra's Moti Roti, imports Bombay romantic-melodrama into the East End, combining stage action, film, bilingual dialogue, and karaoke interludes in a way that satirises the form without diminishing its narrative grip. Nitish Bharadwaj stars as a Hindi cousin of Dallas's J R. In Backstroke in a Crowded Pool Jane Coles brings animal rights, abortion, Islamic conversion, and racial mugging together in a plot that reflects the hazardous title setting. The dialogue is athletic, and every character has his own voice. The pool itself is the Bush's latest and most spectacular achievement in overcoming its cramped dimensions; and alongside the show's high- diving fanatics there are two lovely performances from Sophie Stanton and Leena Dhingra as people calmly getting through life with a modest breast stroke.

'Oleanna': Royal Court (071-730 1745). 'Maybe': Royal Exchange, Manchester (061-833 9833). 'Moti Roti': Royal, Stratford East (081-534 0310). 'Backstroke in a Crowded Pool': Bush (081-743 3388).

(Photograph omitted)