theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
You know those one-man, rapid-fire question-and-answer sessions that Donald Rumsfeld inflicts on press briefings: “Is Bin Laden alive? We don’t think so. Will we find him? You bet!”? I was reminded of them at the Garrick Theatre revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna, when Carol, the newly politicized student, strung about six of the couplets together. I had thought it was an ugly twenty-first century phenomenon, but Rumsfeld’s fellow Chicagoan was doing it twelve years ago.
Maybe he even started it all: Oleanna has been a set text for American students for years. But is that as literature, or as a case study for citizenship classes?
To the British of 2004 Mamet can seem prophetic in showing a man broken by the misrepresentation of his innocent or venial words and actions: such cases make the papers every day, and still have the power to shock and anger. But in the States at least, they were nothing new even in 1992. For all the indignation aroused by the play’s early performances, art changed nothing: the tide of political correctness was not turned.
Aaron Eckhart plays a tweedy professor, not physically glamorous but to an insecure student unhappy with her grades, worldly and powerful. His own book is on the reading list. When she comes to see him for the first time Carol is drably dressed, a victim’s outfit. She tries to tell him that she comes from a different social class but he is so full of himself he does not allow her to finish. He seems to be trying to impress her, maybe more than that, with his fancy talk, his paradoxes, his risqué jokes, and his personal touch; yet, although Carol can rarely get a word in, and when she does it is to say that she feels stupid, there are intimations that she might be his superior.
The early dialogue seems artificial, with Carol’s sentences repeatedly truncated to a couple of words by John’s interruptions. But there is an obvious counterpoint with their second meeting, where Carol begins to take control. She has made a formal complaint against him: the full set of those taboo “isms”, plus some sexual harassment. We see what she means — we all speak that language these days — but come on!
John’s efforts to make it better just make it worse, and “harassment” turns to “attempted rape”. The students demand control of the content of the course; his prospects recede; he loses his dream house. When, in parting, she offers the casual advice: “Don’t call your wife ‘Baby'”, real violence is his only available response.
No spectator shouted, “Kill the bitch” this time: a thoughtful silence greeted this very powerful scene. Perhaps we have changed: it is hard not to feel sympathy for the more likeable John, but for some things there is no excuse.
Eckhart is utterly convincing as the professor, disintegrating from the machismo of a Mamet executive, in his early telephone calls, to a whining supplicant hiding behind his desk, before finally recovering some dignity. Julia Stiles shows the complexity of the principled, devious, cold fish Carol, simultaneously vulnerable and steely. Her lines often seem mannered, and she struggles to overcome this. I was wondering who would play ‘Oleanna’, but it turns out the title refers to a folk song where Oleanna is a place of freedom from slavery. Both characters have their shackles.
The professor sees it as his first responsibility to “haze” — to provoke — his students, and succeeds all too well. He condemns the trivia of higher education: the obsession with grades, for example, and might be talking about our own troubled universities.
The director Lindsay Posner has brought great subtlety out of an awkward script, bare of stage directions, to create a gripping and thought-provoking production.
Mark Campbell © 2004
Originally published on R&V on 01-05-04
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