Oleanna @ Mast Mayflower Studios
Oleanna is a small play with a big reputation. Running at a little under 90 minutes it nonetheless carries a lot of weight. It’s been called “a me too play before me too even existed”, which isn’t far from the mark, so it speaks to current audiences and, from the snatches of conversation I overheard leaving the Mast Mayflower Studios it’s a piece that provokes a lot of thoughts.
The two hander has a simple premise, a student, Carol, goes to see her college professor as she’s struggling in class. John is on the verge of being granted tenure, is buying a new house and is juggling frequent phone calls with trying to hold a conversation with Carol. As their talk progresses, he becomes more and more familiar, suggests they cast aside their student/teacher roles and repeatedly moves himself into Carol’s space.
Lucy Bailey’s direction deftly walks the tightrope throughout the first act whereby you can see John as either an older man just trying to relate to his young student or as a calculated sexual predator, or indeed any point in between. It’s a blank slate and Jonathan Slinger perfectly captures the spectrum of this, his voice modulated to show he is no threat, his body language often like that of an excited child as he discusses his thoughts, reciting from the book John has written and then injected into the syllabus of his course.
In the second act we find Carol has written to the tenure committee and made a statement against her lecturer. She cites some anecdotes he tells that are sexual in nature and which she labels as pornographic. She sees John as the embodiment of patriarchal abuse of power and has agreed to discuss this privately ahead of a formal hearing. Rosie Sheehy’s take on Carol is fascinating; she visibly grows as she makes her resolve clear. She and ‘her group’ the fellow students who she represents with her allegations, seem to have a reasonable request… that John acknowledge he has abused his position with offers of regular private meetings with his students and with content that they find uncomfortable. He bristles at this and eventually, when Carol tries to leave he grabs her.
By act three the tables have turned, Carol has gone from baggy jeans and sweatshirts to a teenage approximation of formal dress while John, who has been living in a hotel, is dishevelled. She once again agrees to his meeting in private, the tenure committee has upheld her claims and when John takes a telephone call he discovers she has also filed a criminal charge against him, of attempted rape. When she demands he stop calling his wife baby on the phone, in the midst of John’s conversation with her, he snaps… and the final moments of the play are shocking despite their inevitability.
Both actors are excellent, embodying their characters wholly and making them feel real. I’ve seen note elsewhere that Oleanna has been considered by some critics as the first play where David Mamet wrote a believable female character, but I must confess I found that Carol’s third act dialogue sounded like it had been written for a man. Perhaps that’s just because she has the upper hand for once, perhaps it’s just because Mamet’s fractious writing, with barely a complete sentence uttered just sounds masculine to my ears…. But I rather think it’s because in that third act Carol goes from being utterly in the right to needlessly cruel. The moment she goes from making demands about the way the college course is run to telling John how he should address his wife is a needless twist of the knife, an abuse of power that reflects many of her complaints against him. It’s a small act in and of itself but both actors use it to show just how much the balance has shifted.
Like last week’s Copenhagen this is an excellent production of a modern classic that started out at Bath Theatre Royal before heading out on tour. Hopefully this is the start of a fruitful relationship between the spaces that brings Southampton a regular dose of thought provoking theatre alongside the glitz and glamour on show at MAST’s sister theatre.
Until Saturday 10th July. For more info head to https://www.mayflowerstudios.org.uk/what-s-on/oleanna-2021/