Oleanna opens in a grey-walled university office, complete with bookshelves, a knackered old Dell computer, and cheap abstract prints on the wall. John (Jonathan Slinger) is the professor who inhabits this grimly recognisable space, while Carol (Rosie Sheehy) is a distraught student, fresh from failing a test, who has come to seek his counsel.
Alex Eales’ set is perhaps my favourite thing about Lucy Bailey’s production. It is at once indicative of learning and knowledge, with books piled high in all directions, but at the same time, contradictingly, uninspiring in its modern, drab decor and cool lighting. It encapsulates the failure of the institution to provide an effective education for Carol — while at the same time capturing something of John’s slimy, mean character as he mocks and abuses Carol over the course of the play.
David Mamet’s remarkably prescient 1992 play has historically been read as ambiguous, in whether the central theme is John’s shameless entitlement and abuse of power, or Carol’s political correctness gone mad. Post #Metoo, Bailey aptly puts our sympathies firmly in Carol’s hands. And this set-up works well: Slinger is brilliant as the bullying, dismissive professor, maintaining a caddish disregard for everything his pupil says. He is like an evil Robin Williams, dancing around his pupil as she tries to ask for help, with a sing-song, melodramatic voice, and a horrendous quality of never actually listening to anything that she says.
Sheehy is similarly excellent as Carol, clearly desperate for help and hurt by what is taking place, but with a steely grit bubbling just beneath the surface. She internalises all her thoughts as much as her professor externalises his. She appears essentially passive — but does she actually clock more of what is going on than she lets on? This is the central tension in Oleanna, constantly encircling the action and keeping us guessing as he flirts and mocks.
Mamet’s writing is a little laboured sometimes, lacking an idiomatic quality that could perhaps better humanise what is taking place. But the real demonstration of skill lies in how he plays so effectively with our empathy. For while we rationally side with Carol; nonetheless, we cannot help but be charmed by John’s intelligence and more mature wit in spite of ourselves. And the very process of experiencing these reactions enacts society’s inadequacy to deal with men like him.
It is an immensely clever production that continually goes where you don’t quite expect. The cast is excellent and having never seen it before, I have been thinking about it ever since.
Oleanna is playing Arts Theatre until 23 October 2021. For more information, see Arts Theatre online.