Reviewed by Nathan Finger and Sydney Abba
David Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) has a reputation for dividing audiences. ‘It’s my job to provoke you’, says John at one point, and it seems that this is Mamet’s objective as well.
The play is set in John’s university office. A power dynamic is straight away suggested by the presence of two chairs. John’s is large and imposing; the student’s, tiny by comparison. Indeed, this is a play about power. Carol, a student of John’s, is finding his course, Psychology of Education, impossibly difficult. At first John is uninterested, though he eventually becomes sympathetic to her plight (remembering his own from years ago). John rambles on and becomes increasingly familiar with Carol, which she finds intimidating. In the second act we learn she has complained of sexual harassment against him. His hopes of achieving tenure and buying a new home are subsequently threatened. The pair tries to resolve their issues, though further conflict, prompting Carol to up the charge.
Here audiences will divide. Is this rape or political correctness gone crazy? The kicker, of course, is that both characters are wrong, whilst also being ‘right’. But then, the play isn’t about that at all. Mamet’s point is actually about the privilege of power. John, a college professor, is in a position of privilege: he designs a course, he proscribes the texts, and he decides whether students will pass or fail. The power that comes with this privilege he exercises over Carol: he demands her attention, talks down to her and makes her feel inadequate.
Of course, as the play progresses the power shifts. Carol finds ways to assert control over John’s life: threatening his job, his home, even his family. This is also an abuse of power and one must ask - is it justified? The play becomes an examination of the conventional systems that exist within society and how they exert control over us in ways that are accepted and, at times, not even fully recognized for the damage they may cause.
This was obviously a pet project for Jerome Pride; nevertheless, the play appeared somewhat too big for the actors’ boots. Both Act I performances felt self-contained and it was only during the second half that the audience was invited in. Our student, Carol, played by Grace O’Connell (a second year student at the Sydney Theatre School) is a mousy, confused cipher. Though her failure to comprehend her professor’s classes is never really explained O’Connell does her best to fill in the gaps. O’Connell has an interesting, rather mysterious presence on stage, yet the character’s final transformation led to stock-standard acting choices that detracted from the power O’Connell wished to convey.
Our Professor, John, played by director Jerome Pride, is best described as intellectually self-indulgent. Pride layers a subtle blend of unconscious abuse of power with a seemingly contradictory cognizance of how smug he is. This works well. Whilst he plays this insufferable middle-ager with gusto and understanding, it is evident that the choice to either direct or act should have been made. This is because the chemistry between the two performers, whilst good, lacks the lustre or shine that one would expect from a two-hander. This could have been avoided by a full time director.
Oleanna is playing at the Sydney Theatre School until the 6th of July. For more information see www.sydneytheatreschool.com