At the start of each act, professor and student pace around the edge of an office, like boxers dancing around a ring, preparing to pull their intellectual punches. Juliet Forster’s production of Oleanna transports the action of David Mamet’s play to a British university as opposed to the original American setting, but the agenda of gender is palpable on any continent. Senior academic John (Kevin McGowan) claims to adore teaching and the act of performance it brings (‘That’s my job – to provoke you’). Yet Carol, his inexperienced student (Claire Louise Cordwell), soon begins to turn his own strength against him.
Minutely dissecting the relationship between student and teacher, Cordwell and McGowan guide us through this inspection of language with excellent precision. They rigorously question the apparent perspicacity of facts, revealing how so-called truth becomes a veil when motive comes into play. To some, McGowan’s professor will be charismatic and intellectually challenging; to others, he will seem unnerving and exploitative. An audience may sympathise with Cordwell’s portrayal of an intimidated student, or they may accuse her of being a masterful manipulator.
What makes Forster’s production so successful is this very debate, and Cordwell and McGowan’s breath-takingly sharp realization of it. Inevitably, the audience’s approach to this play will vary hugely depending on their gender, economic background and stance on education. However Cordwell and McGowan’s encounter is suspended in the audience’s minds; it achieves the near impossible task of meriting high praise while evading interpretation. It is a conflict that rages in the viewers’ heads throughout the performance and continues to be argued over in the theatre foyer afterwards.
Oleanna is at York Theatre Royal, 4 – 27 November, 19:45, with 14:30 (Thursday) and 14:00 (Saturday).