Garrick Theatre, London
David Mamet never wrote a more controversial play than Oleanna, or one more designed to get the hackles rising.
It’s not just the contentiousness of his subject – sexual harassment and `political correctness’. It’s the way he manipulates the situation, the right of course of any dramatist but one carried here to extreme lengths.
Mamet’s female protagonist who brings about the downfall of her professor through a terrifying form of vulnerability and ignorance, is a devilishly clever distortion of a truth. Namely that powerlessness leads to tyranny, whether it’s to do with race, age, or, here, feminism.
True, feminist zealots did for a while did appear to make some absurd claims, `all men are rapists’, being one of the more ridiculous.
Mamet guarantees the line brings the house down here, engineered as it is to heighten our antagonism to Julia Stiles’s shaking, quaking student, Carol as she patently misconstrues the behaviour of Aaron Eckhart’s manly academic, John who, thus far, has shown her only conscientious, reasonable concern.
Oh, what a falling off was here. Was ever such a one-sided battle conjoined? From the start, Stiles’s shreaky novice signals `dangerous flake’, her threat compounded by her desperation.
Lack of knowledge in her case breeds fear, anger and ultimately provokes violence from Eckhart’s youthful, well meaning professor who never properly suggests the power imbalance against which so much feminist ire was originally aimed and which, in its own time, turned oppressor.
Under Christopher Oram’s bleak, glaring skylight, Lindsay Posner’s production underlines the play as a study in language but can’t hide its increasing sense of absurdity.
Needless to say – and in a week when the English National Opera have banned the word `darling’ deeming it `harassment’ – this revival confirms Oleanna’s irritatingly provocative relevance.
This review first published in April, 2004 in The Herald (Glasgow)