When it was first produced in the US exactly 12 years ago, and was subsequently seen at the Royal Court in a new production a year later, David Mamet’s Oleanna quickly became more than just a play. It was a cultural beacon – a talking point in itself, around which a fierce debate would rage.
Mamet has himself said it became “a succes de scandale, a handy French phase meaning everyone was so enraged by it that everyone had to see it”.
It remains one of the most combustible, combative plays of its decade, a taut, fraught and inflammatory work about the power and meaning of words, in an age of ‘political correctness’, and how their interpretation can become tools of manipulation, power and even violence, weapons to be vigorously wielded.
But aren’t we over it now? As performers like Ricky Gervais comically subvert the PC culture, haven’t we moved on? Not if a story in the Evening Standard on the same day that this West End revival of Oleanna opened is any indication. English National Opera has issued new guidelines to their employees on the subject of sexual discrimination at work, and the rules include the statement: “The use of affectionate names such as ‘darling’ will also constitute sexual harassment.”
Meanwhile, on stage around the corner from ENO at the Garrick, an everyday story of classroom politics, in which a young female student seeks to have an assignment that she failed re-marked, explodes into a blistering, volatile expose of the language of sexual politics that eventually has the student accusing him of rape.
She means the word in a sense that is both figurative (accusing him of exploiting his ‘paternal prerogative’ in class, adding, “and what is that but rape; I swear to God”) and then literal (applying the letter of the law to the way the professor tries to restrain her departure from the room after her report to the Tenure Committee threatens his promotion).
Two terrific American film actors, Julia Stiles and Aaron Eckhart, bring convincing, raging passion to the increasingly desperate journeys that this confrontation propels them along, and Lindsay Posner’s meticulous production - formally staged on Christopher Oram’s raised platform stripped bare of everything but a desk, a water cooler and a chair, with a skylight over it - maintains the darkening tension throughout.
- Mark Shenton