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Play takes a swipe at 'political correctness': Harassment drama set to divide audiences

FOR the first time in many years, British theatre is anticipating a play that could stir up political and social controversy beyond those people who actually see it.

When it played in New York, it was the hottest topic in the sex war next to Woody and Mia. In its implied sympathy for a man accused of sexual harassment, and in its attack on the political correctness sweeping American campuses, it infuriated students and had couples screaming at each other as they left the theatre.

Oleanna by David Mamet, which opens at the Royal Court theatre in London at the end of this month, concerns a university student who accuses her lecturer of sexual harassment.

Whether he is guilty or not is left ambiguous. The girl brings charges that threaten his career and home life. Urged on by her student feminist group, she 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 only has her feminist group. She was played in New York by Mamet's own wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, as whining and tyrannical. 'Don't call your wife baby,' she snarls at him at one point when he is on the phone. American critics thought the unevenness of the characterisation blurred the debate.

Audiences were often divided in their reactions by gender. Sometimes men applauded when the lecturer hit the girl in exasperation; women were reported seeking out those who had clapped.

The temperature was heightened by Mamet being the darling of radical and fringe theatre. An attack by him on the politically correct movement carries more force than an attack from the right.

The Royal Court production is directed by Harold Pinter, not thought of as antagonistic to the politically correct, though it remains to be seen whether in his hands the play becomes more even-handed.

Mamet's views do not seem in doubt. When he staged the play near the home of the politically correct, Harvard University, he said that putting it on there was like putting The Diary Of Anne Frank on in Dachau. He has let it be known that he has a close friend, a college lecturer, who has been accused of sexual harassment.

And the leading actor in the New York production, William H Macy, a long-time close friend of Mamet, said in an interview: 'Let's face facts. Things that we've been doing for a hundred years are now no longer acceptable and are even illegal in some places.'