The Theatreguide.London Review
Arts Theatre Autumn 2021
David Mamet's play Oleanna can have you sitting on the edge of your seat in a remarkably good production directed by Lucy Bailey. Notorious for stirring up arguments among its audience, it still feels like a flag fiercely waved in the conservative cause of disbelieving women’s complaints about the misbehaviour of men.
It opens to a university office where a teacher is on the phone trying to sort out details of a house he is buying. Behind him sits a student looking drained. She is waiting to speak with him about her grades and her difficulty in understanding the module he teaches on education. It is an unscheduled meeting, but he tries to help her.
Rosie Sheehy gives a very fine performance as the student Carol. Jonathan Slinger gives an equally impressive performance as the amiable, smug, elitist liberal teacher John, who in a misguided attempt to demystify the expectations of educational institutions points out that tests are a con and grades a distraction. This just makes the student Carol panic and claim he is accusing her of being stupid.
By the second act, she has linked up with a university group and escalated to the tenure committee complaints that he is sexist, has been flirting with students, telling pornographic stories and offering her a high grade in exchange for her company. Act Three adds the allegation of attempted rape.
As she grows in confidence, she refers to him as a “little yapping fool” who “mocks the system for which you are the clown.”
The scales of sympathy are weighted against the student but Mamet doesn't let the liberal teacher off the hook. John recklessly tells Carol the education she fears losing is a pointless “virtual warehousing of the young.” He even tries to physically stop her from leaving the room at the end of act two.
It’s an exciting performance of a riveting story, but I again find myself contrasting the play’s peculiar version of the world with the reality of how difficult it is for people to get anywhere complaining to institutions and how many obstacles women face trying to get anything done about rape.
In the year ending in March 2020, there were just 1.4% of rape cases recorded in England and Wales that resulted in suspects being charged. Crime Surveys show that reported rape cases are only the tip of the iceberg of the actual number of victims.
All the same, this socially conservative, dramatically powerful play, is well worth seeing.
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