“Whichever side you take, you’re wrong” was the original tag line for Oleanna, David Mamet’s exploration of the power struggle between John, a university professor and Carol, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment.
Struggling with the complexity of the course, Carol turns to John for guidance but finds herself increasingly bewildered by his convoluted academic language and intellectual double-speak. His clumsy and patronising attempts to offer help are misinterpreted by the student who accuses him of assault and, eventually, rape.
Faced with a ruined career John’s frustration over the accusations made against him spills over into a climatic act of violence which leaves the audience in no doubt who is the ultimate victor.
Clare Foster’s Carol makes the tricky transition from vulnerable co-ed to arrogant accuser with complete conviction, yet Alistair McGowan as John somehow fails to convince as a creditable potential predator. He is just a little too diffident to make his hinted “darker side” seem credible, with little real hint of menace or genuine sexual power play. As a result he wins the sympathy of the audience diluting Mamet’s contention that “the corruption is on both sides” leaving us with little doubt as to who is the villain of the piece.
Yet Matt Aston’s accomplished direction still made the by-play between the two protagonists acute in its accuracy and left many in the audience debating the issues raised by this still powerful play long after the house lights had gone up.
- Nick Brunger
Reviewed April 2011