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BWW Review: OLEANNA, Arts Theatre


David Mamet's controversial play is back in the West End

BWW Review: OLEANNA, Arts Theatre

BWW Review: OLEANNA, Arts Theatre Hugely controversial when it first debuted in the USA in 1992, David Mamet's depiction of the fracturing of a student-teacher relationship remains as provocative and relevant 30 years on in the age of #MeToo and Everyone's Invited.

Originally serving as a treatise on Anita Hill's sexual assault allegations against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, the content can be almost entirely transposed onto the more recent but very similar case of nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blaisey Ford.

Transferring to the West End's Arts Theatre after a successful run at the Theatre Royal in Bath, this rendition of Oleanna is a courageous and unsparing offering from director Lucy Bailey.

Oleanna - derived from a folk song and referring to a 19th-century escapist vision of utopia - follows a female student who initially seeks out her older male professor, who is on the verge of tenure and with it a new house, for advice after failing an assignment.

However, after their first meeting, in which he makes a crass joke, touches her shoulder and begs her to return regularly, she reports him for his behaviour.

The two roles in this double-hander are broadly drawn to reflect the opposite ends of the debate, occasionally to the detriment of nuance, but the two actors skilfully inhabit their characters with enough individuality to bring humanity to a universal argument.

Stage veteran Jonathan Slinger chews up the scenery in the opening act as the cynical professor while Rosie Sheehy's student Carol is a study in subtle body movements and earnest frustration as she battles to decipher her teacher's points. Slinger in particular makes full use of Alex Eales' sharply imagined office set, filling every corner at first before shrinking further and further into its corners as the balance of power shifts.

Gradually the roles shift and subvert across this three-act, 90-minute exploration of gender, power and societal norms. As we progress into the second and third acts, all the small, seemingly innocuous figures of speech and physical movements from the expressive professor John are reframed in sharp focus from the perspective of Carol.

Mamet always intended for this play to pose questions rather than offer solutions and at times seems too eager to avoid taking sides, so do not expect to leave the Arts Theatre feeling suddenly enlightened over moral dilemmas that have plagued civilisation for centuries.

But Bailey ensures a modern perspective is given to these age-old questions, mindful of how society has developed but also remained curiously immutable over three decades while delivering a brutal evaluation of both sides of the argument that will provoke and outrage even now.

Oleanna at the Arts Theatre until 23 October

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