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.