When was the last time a piece of theatre made you so angry or upset
that you felt inclined to call out during the performance, or start a
fight with another audience member? This is exactly the sort of
reaction that greeted the first performances of David Mamet’s Oleanna back in 1992, in America.
Following its Royal Court premiere the following year (directed by
Harold Pinter, no less) British audiences were equally shocked and
provoked by this blistering assault course of a play. Sixteen years
later, its power is undiminished.
The premise is simple, yet effective. Carol (Kosha Engler),
a young student feels she is underachieving in a particular module at
university. Having made an appointment to see her tutor, John (Colin Stinton),
she tries to make her case for her underperformance, whilst he tries to
field a stream of phone calls from his architect friend. To say any
more would spoil what follows, but this is a harrowing and thoroughly
nasty dissection of political correctness, and the power of language.
What Mamet achieves in seventy minutes is nothing short of
miraculous. Most plays twice this length manage to do half as much, and
not nearly as effectively. The dialogue is scattergun, fast, furious
and a masterclass in exposition for an audience. The slow drip-feed of
information is what generates the tension here, and the play is surely
now considered a 20th century masterpiece.
Iqbal Khan (in his Octagon
debut) transforms the material into a superlative production,
meticulously thought through. There is a relentless intelligence to
this work, and the even-handed treatment of the material, and the
handling of the play’s climax is exemplary. Brilliantly and starkly lit
and designed by Ciaran Bagnall,
the action takes place in what appears to be a metallic pugilist arena,
an apt backdrop for this verbal gladiatorial spectacle. There is also a
brilliant subtlety in the smallest of details; the sartorial shift of
both characters, the contents of the waste paper bin.
Without actors of the calibre of Stinton and Engler, the pace might
begin to lag. They are both faultless, and compliment each other,
giving generous and nuanced performances. He expertly conveys the
everyman, slowly unwound and beaten down on his own turf. Whereas, she
manages Carol’s gradual transition brilliantly, suggesting much more
menace at work beneath the peppy exterior. If you are a fan of
first-rate acting, you simply have to see these two performers.
Conclusively, this is an evening that’s pretty much faultless. Yes,
it’s controversial, harrowing, and disturbing and it’s meant to be. But
it’s also gripping, fast-paced and thought-provoking and would appeal
to anyone in search of a good night out.
Quite simply, Khan’s Oleanna is the best play currently playing in repertory in the region, and you must see it before the end of its run.