THEATRE / Dramatically incorrect: Paul Taylor on the British premiere of David Mamet's controversial Oleanna, at the Royal Court, London

Paul Taylor
Monday 12 October 2015 13:31

DAVID MAMET once published an essay in Playboy entitled 'In the company of men', which aired his enthusiasm for the all-male society found in such activities as shooting, hunting, gambling and boxing. Reading reports from New York about the rabidly gender- polarised response to his latest play, Oleanna (which deals with the problem of political correctness on campus and a false sexual harassment charge) you felt it was perhaps just as well the dramatist had this taste for men- only milieux to fall back on. It certainly sounded as though he might soon be free to indulge it on an uninterrupted basis.

The impressions created by the publicity were not dispelled by a preliminary reading of the text. Staging a tense duel between its two characters, the drama seemed to me every bit as even-handed as Wittgenstein's brother, the one-armed pianist.

Thanks to taut, sensitive direction by Harold Pinter and finely shaded performances from Lia Williams and David Suchet, the English premiere of the work at the Royal Court suggests that there is a little more balance and ambiguity in the piece, though still not enough to do real justice to the important themes raised. If PC is the new McCarthyism, Oleanna is not, alas, its Crucible.

Moving with a lethally measured tread to a sudden explosion of violence at the end, the play shows us three meetings between an apparently dim-witted student called Carol and her professor, John. Recognising in her morose anxiety a reflection of his own youthful insecurities, John tries to put the girl at ease by recalling those worries, by discussing his doubts about higher education in general and by promising an A for the course if she'll agree to come back for further help. When she weeps, he puts a consoling hand on her shoulder.

Imprudent, admittedly, and in the case of the grade-promise, quite unprofessional; but also, the text and Suchet's performance makes plain, unequivocally well-intentioned and unpredatory. Rashomon this ain't. If Suchet's professor is a little pompous and self-satisfied, that's just a deformation professionelle, not a crime. And to sway you further in his favour, he is shown (via repeated telephone calls) to be a family man sweating on a house purchase and a new tenure contract. So when Carol, now with the backing of an ominous but vague-sounding 'Group', turns the tables on her tutor, distorting his innocuous words and actions in a sexual harassment charge, your sympathies aren't exactly torn.

It doesn't help that Carol seems to have a hefty personality rethink between the first and the subsequent meetings (in presence and in word-power, she comes on a treat), which could mean that the professor has been set up from the start. Attempting to restrain her at the end of the second encounter, he discovers, during the third, that he is now to face a rape charge. When she piously tells him not to call his wife 'baby', he finds himself goaded beyond endurance and becomes, briefly and shockingly, the brute she has described.

The version at the Royal Court then moves to a different conclusion from the one in New York. Here, shakily but with chilling single-mindedness, Carol gets up from the vicious assault and finds the confession she wants him to deliver before the whole school and the list of books (including his own) the Group wants banned. The broken man is reading this out to her as the play ends.

The play is breathtakingly slanted, but it would be wrong to think that Mamet is interested in Carol only as an agent of destruction or that he is engaged in the shabby manoeuvre of using an attack on PC as a covert way of reinstating some old and unpleasant prejudices. All sullen inadequacy, humourless resentment and soft, fanatical voice, Lia Williams' Carol shows you a girl whose zeal to destroy John is a malign continuation of her single-minded struggle to scrape into the college in the first place.

At the start, the actress valuably pulls you into the character's confused feelings of being out of her depth. You then see how, instead of learning to swim, Carol latches on to PC as a way of shooting the swimming instructor. And, since this can only be achieved at the cost of intellectual suicide, the ending must be counted bleak for both of them.

The Royal Court, Sloane Sq, London SW1 (071-730 1745).

(Photograph omitted)

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