Power and sexual politics in a university setting:
David Mamet's play 30 years on is brilliant
“I tell you that you are vile and repulsive”
Oleanna is a superb play and under Lucy Bailey’s direction it is well balanced. John and Carol and their rights and wrongs are as debatable as Greek tragedy. The question for me in Oleanna is not primarily sexism but power.
I worked for nigh on ten years in charge of investigating university complaints and met failing students like Carol, arrogant lecturers like John (and caring ones), students with unrealistic ideas as to what their work was worth and the occasional sex addict. This last experience needs to be the subject of my own play!
So much of what, professor in the USA, lecturer here, John (Jonathan Slinger) says and does is unprofessional. His phone should be switched off when he has a student in the room. More importantly the basis for his power is academic judgment, a teacher’s right to decide what is good work and has merit and what is poor. In offering Carol (Rosie Sheehy) an A for just attending extra classes he completely devalues his power base as that grade A is unlikely to be earnt.
Any complainant should not be seen on their own, there should be a witness recording what is said, but that procedural stricture would interfere with David Mamet’s dramatic licence. So let’s deal with the realities of this electrifying play.
In the first act, we wait with Carol, in his book lined study, for John to turn round and get off the phone. He has his back to Carol as he argues with his wife and the realtor about a house they want to purchase. It is the height of rudeness. Never once during the call, does he apologise for this distraction and erosion of her appointment time with him, nor does he look at her.
On the phone, he is discussing an easement, a right of way on the sale property and she is taking notes. When he finally puts down the phone, they discuss a piece of work she has failed and she says, “I have to pass this course.” She has not understood some of the basic concepts, she melts down in distress and at last gets some sympathetic behaviour from him. He puts his hand on her shoulder.
A physics teacher at my son’s school repeatedly put his hands on their shoulders and leant on them. The boys put drawing pins pin upwards inside the shoulder of their blazers as an effective deterrent.
John starts to relate to Carol and tells her how he was regarded as stupid at school. He offers her a grade A if she will come to extra classes with him, appearing to genuinely want to help her pass.
In Act Two, Rosie comes to his office. More confident than she was in the first act, she has complained about him for sexual harassment and has damning notes. John was being assessed by the university for tenure, a permanent appointment at this university which would mean security and a rise in salary. John is overconfident at the likely result that he would win the complaint on appeal but meanwhile he would lose his tenure, his house and his deposit.
It would be too much to hope that the phone didn’t ring during this crucial interview but yes it does and John says, “I’m dealing with it now.”
Act Three sees Carol power dressed, frock and wearing heels, and more articulate having been supported by some people she calls “her group”. On first seeing Oleanna, many of the middle aged and older male critics sided with the lecturer John. I get the feeling that with Lucy Bailey directing and with the recent events of “Me Too”, that more will see what wrongs the student has been subject to. It may not be exactly as she describes it because that is her perception and she may be, as the justices put it, “over egging the pudding”. For me, John has the responsibility to behave better, he is meant to be the professional and he has power over her learning.
The performances are tip top. Never for a moment do you see Johnathan Slinger as anything other than this shambolic, stressed, impulsive and maladroit academic and Rosie Sheehy is a great find making the journey of the play from failing underconfident student to assertive and eloquent woman.
Do not miss this play which opened in Bath pre-final (hopefully) lockdown last December. It is so very good, that I am going to award it Theatrevibe’s rarity of five stars!
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Director: Lucy Bailey
Designer: Alex Eales
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer: Jon Nicholls
Assistant Director: Lucy Waterhouse
Running Time: One hour 20 minutes without an interval
Booking to 23rd October 2021
6-7 Great Newport Street
London, WC2B 7JH
Phone: 020 7836 8463
Tube: Leicester Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
on 28th July 2021