Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • OLEANNA • Garrick Theatre • 2004

Stiles in April 2007 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City [Wikimedia]

Julia Stiles in April 2007 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City [Wikimedia]

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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on 06/15/2016 by in Reviews, Theatre and tagged , , , , , .
The Recipe Hunter

Cook and Enjoy

Travel with Intent

A photographer's view of the world - words and images to inspire your travels and your dreams


Roaming, at home and abroad

Shalden & Neatham sister site to the Reluctant Janeite

Jane Austen, her letters & other literary digressions

stewilko's Blog

A place for my thoughts

Her Diffident Way

The only way I know


Mostly photographs with some words by this arty scientist...


Viewing movies in a different light

Mandy Bangerter

Textile Artist and Teacher


Smile! You’re at the best site ever


Bohemian Stuff

pulseless electrical activity.

The Observation Post

mistermuse, half-poet and half-wit

Wild Star Landing

Poetry, Facts, Fiction, Inspired by Travel, Art, Science, Nature & Philosophy

Turtle Bunbury

Historian * Author * Presenter * Speaker * Guide

Fierce Writing

Not so much Rage Against the Machine as Slightly Peeved the Taps Won't Work

Victorian Footnotes

Bringing back the forgotten

Etan Smallman

Freelance journalist

Michael Ehrhardt

Permanenter Ausstellungsraum


Writing about writing; words about the world

It's all in the Past!

Writing about current events from a historical perspective.

Mrinalini Raj


History Quirks

The Casual Past


Words and images from the past

The adventures of Janice Duke and her Magical Travelling Paint Box

Caz Greenham...Storyteller...Author...

Creator and Author of The Adventures of Eric Seagull 'Storyteller' series

Movies From The Silent Era

A repository for movies from the silent era

Art Universal

Art as a Sensory

Henry Brooke

Musings, Memories and Miscellanea

Matthew Toffolo's Summary

Daily summary of the life/movie world.

When Angels Fly

Author site of S. Jackson & A. Raymond

off the leash

History, technology, books and baseball.



Writer Site

Memoir, poetry, & writing theory


faces gourmet world of fashion, design and art

From guestwriters

Lifestyle magazine and Readers Digest

The Vintage Toy Advertiser

Suffering ink-stained fingers and occasional staple wounds to bring you wonderful images of late 20th century advertising and paperworks

Sauce Box

Never get lost in the Sauce


Theatre, Film and TV.

Smart History Blog

Compelling Stories of Russian History

Newcastle Photography

Photography Blog by Chris Egon Searle

Brave and Reckless

Reclaiming my inner badass at 50

Gretchen Del Rio's Art Blog

Watercolor paintings

Today in History

"Tell me a fact, and I'll learn. Tell me a truth, and I'll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever." - Steve Sabol, NFL Films

%d bloggers like this: