Musgrove Theatre (Maidment Studio)
Sept 18-Oct 4 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

TO SAY that Oleanna is about sexual politics is overly simplistic. To say it is about harassment is missing the point. To say it is about a war – both personal and universal – is getting closer to the truth.

Oleanna is one of those plays that stirs up opposing, and rather unpleasant, emotions in those who see it. And it does it not by excessive portrayal of violence, or distasteful sexual acts, but far more elegantly, by screwing with the collective audience mind. In this play by American playwright David Mamet, language is proven to be the most potent of weapons.

In the first act, a college professor, John (Jim McLarty) offers to give extra tutelage to a young female student, Carol (Alison Titulaer) who comes to his office asking for help on the paper he teaches. The dialogue, delivered in a series of stilted, repetitive, frequently interrupted phrases, is deliberately excruciating. Carol’s wall-like “I- don’t-understand” meets John’s clumsy attempts to “help” her. When John starts using overly academic language, there is knowing audience laughter. But to be fair, Carol doesn’t seem to be the world’s brightest student.

The two actors keep tight control of what is often a challenging script. McLarty deftly portrays a bumbling professor. His John has more than a touch of Asperger’s syndrome: fussy, showing a distinct lack of social judgement, blundering through private calls from wife and lawyer while having what he assumes is a kind chat to a student. Titulaer’s Carol is a tightly wound ball of resentment and misunderstanding. Maybe I was tired that night, but I found the first half hard going, with its stops and starts and apparently irrelevant segues. But the payoff in the second half was worth it.

Oleanna is a slow-burn play. Mamet layers the wood of the bonfire in the first act, then throws on the accelerant in the second act. By the third act we can hardly bear to watch – yet are unable to stop watching – as he strikes the match. If you think this is a laboured metaphor, you are right. This is my clumsy attempt to describe the intensity of what happens without giving away the plot. It’s enough to say that victim and oppressor are not always who they appear to be. And it seems that given the same set of data, there is always more than one interpretation of ‘the truth’.

The elegant set design by Bronwyn Bent and lighting by Yee Yang Lee add to the air of the hunter and the hunted. The actors are confined to a raised X in the middle of the stage area, two chairs and a bookshelf. A tight central square provides the arena for confrontation. Small but clever touches add to characterisation– a rake for straightening the carpet, a desktop smoothie machine. The strong overhead lighting subtly suggests an interrogation chamber.

Oleanna is war in microcosm. But Carol and John are not the only characters in the play. Unseen others intrude, often ludicrously, via phone, text message and reported speech. When Carol starts spouting ideology and referring to “my Group”; when there are references to the all-powerful tenure committee, there is a realisation that there are invisible, mostly malevolent forces at work and that the stakes are possibly higher than John, at least, realises. This no less than a confrontation of old-world codes against new.

Director Michael Lawrence has chosen to present victim and oppressor fairly unambiguously, yet I wondered if there was more room for subtlety in the script. In any case, there’s plenty to provoke discussion as we leave the theatre. Political correctness gone mad or a sickness in the academic system? Was the fault entirely one person’s? And so it goes. There’s the admiration of a well-rehearsed production with two well-matched actors, along with a vague discomfort. Is the fictional world is a little too close to the real one, perhaps? It’s not exactly a happy night out. But it may be a worthy one.