FIRST NIGHT / OLEANNA: Provocative drama divides sexes

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MAN teaches girl. Man touches girl. Girl takes revenge. Men and women in the audience nearly come to blows.

David Mamet's attack on political correctness, which opened at the Royal Court theatre last night, split the chattering classes by gender during its run in New York. Couples emerged screaming at each other and cancelled post-theatre dinners. One group of women reportedly tried to 'get' the men who applauded when the exasperated lecturer does strike and kick the girl in the climax of this gripping play. Some men did indeed spontaneously applaud last night.

The British are more restrained, generally avoiding muggings in the back stalls; but more people must have come out into Sloane Square arguing than at any time since Look Back In Anger. Luke Rittner, former secretary general of the Arts Council, said: 'It's a long time since I've seen people in an auditorium virtually fighting with one another at the end.'

Oleanna tells the story of a university student who accuses her lecturer of sexual harassment.

Whether he is guilty or not is left ambiguous. He puts an arm round her shoulder and makes a risque joke when she comes to see him about her examination difficulties; she returns with the backing of her 'group' to accuse him of sexual harassment and put his career in jeopardy, later adding 'classism' and attempted rape to the accusations. The girl offers to drop the charges if he will remove certain books the group disapproves of from the prescribed list of texts.

Mamet evokes sympathy for the man, giving him a family and home life; the girl has only her feminist group. While it is unfortunate that the unevenness of the characterisation blurs the debate, the Royal Court production, directed by Harold Pinter, and with two excellant performances by David Suchet and Lia Williams, makes the girl less of the snarling automaton that she apparently was in New York and does more to balance the drama.

However, the attack on political correctness, particularly efforts to curb academic freedom, and the belief that the man cannot be a victim in a sexual harassment allegation, still carries considerable surprise in that it comes from a playwright who has been the darling of radical audiences.

It has split not just audiences, but the cast of the play. In a pre-first night interview, Suchet and Williams, who play lecturer and student, were interrupted by an angry Pinter when they showed their sympathies too clearly.

'No way is that rape,' Suchet said. 'On the simplest level, she's lying and she's on her way to getting him destroyed.' Williams countered: 'Her accusation is absolutely, 100 per cent, legitimate.'

Groups campaigning about sexual harassment are depressed it may now become fashionable to paint the man as victim. Alison Ogden, a trade union official who has represented numerous women in sexual harassment cases, said: 'Someone like Mamet gets exposure and this sets up the whole issue of harassment from the man's perspective through a completely unsympathetic accuser. The price you pay for pursuing such a case in the real world is enormous.'