Power Play: Review of Sydney Theatre School and Actors Not Feelers’ Oleanna
If you like your theatre with a side of controversy than this is the play for you. David Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) has a reputation for dividing audiences. ‘It’s my job to provoke you’, says John at one point, and it seems that this is Mamet’s objective as well.
The play is set entirely in John’s university office; the Sydney Theatre School presents a spare and simple set: a desk, two chairs and a phone. Before the actors even come on stage the power dynamic is established by two chairs: John’s is large and imposing; the student’s, tiny by comparison. Indeed, this is a play about power. Carol, a student of John’s, comes to his office because she is having difficulty with his course, Psychology of Education. At first John seems uninterested in her problem, though he eventually attempts to help her as he remembers feeling the same inadequacies as a student himself. Through his ramblings John becomes increasingly familiar with Carol, something she is intimidated by. In the second act we learn of her official complaint of sexual harassment against him. His hopes of achieving tenure and buying a new home are subsequently threatened. The pair tries to resolve their issues, but this only leads to further conflict, which gets a little physical, prompting Carol to up the charge to attempted rape.
This is where audiences will divide. Has rape just been depicted, or is this an example of political correctness gone crazy? The kicker, of course, is that both characters are wrong, whilst also being ‘right’. But then, the play isn’t about that at all. Mamet’s point is actually about power, who has it and how they use it. John, a college professor, is in a position of privilege: he designs a course, he proscribes the texts, and he decides whether students will pass or fail. At one point he states, ‘I probably shouldn’t say I teach you, what do I know? I only have opinions and I can tell you what my opinions are.’ It is a privileged position of power to be in, and he exercises this power over Carol: he demands her attention, talks down to her and makes her feel inadequate.
Of course, as the play progresses the power shifts. Carol finds ways to assert control over John’s life: she threatens to take away his job, his home, and even his family. Arguably, this is also an abuse of power. So the question must be asked: is it justified? The play becomes an examination of the conventional systems that exist within society and how they exert control over us in ways that are accepted and, at times, not even fully recognized for the damage they may cause. In this regard the play very stimulating.
On another level, though, the play is disappointing. At its most basic level, the play struggles to engage its audience, for the simple reason that there is almost no plot. Carol’s break down in Act I seemingly comes out of left field. Without knowing more about who she is her emotional response just isn’t believable. This is not Grace O’Connell’s fault, rather the scripts. It’s just three acts of characters espousing their beliefs about the education system. Lots of theories are thrown around and it becomes difficult to link them in any meaningful way. Arguably, this is not the point of the play, but in making up a large part the content, it’s worth mentioning. Ironically, throughout the play Carol bemoans the intellectual elitism she perceives John proscribing to, but you would struggle to find a more intellectually elitist play. For the average punter these debates are pretty tedious, even when you can follow their line of argument.
This was obviously a pet project for Jerome Pride, who both directed and performed in this piece; nevertheless, the play appeared somewhat too big for the actors’ boots. Both Act I performances felt self-contained and it was only during the second half that the audience was invited in. Our student, Carol, played by Grace O’Connell (a second year student at the Sydney Theatre School) is a mousy, confused cipher. Although the reason for her failure to comprehend her professor’s classes is never really explained O’Connell does her best to fill in the gaps. O’Connell has an interesting, rather mysterious presence on stage, though, the character’s final transformation led to stock-standard acting choices that detracted from the power O’Connell wished to convey.
Our Professor, John, played by Jerome Pride, is best described as intellectually self-indulgent. Pride layers a subtle blend of unconscious abuse of power with a seemingly contradictory cognizance of how smug he is. This works well. Whilst he plays this insufferable middle-ager with gusto and understanding, it is evident that the choice to either direct or act should have been made. This is because the chemistry between the two performers, whilst good, lacks the lustre or shine that one would expect from a two-hander. This could have been avoided by a full time director.
Theatre’s goal should be both to entertain and stimulate the mind. While Oleanna certainly engages the intellect it is lacking in the basics of good story telling. Thankfully, at only an hour in length it can get away with this to certain extent. It is said Mamet locks one man and one woman in an office where, depending on your point of view, an act of sexual harassment does or does not occur. The problem, however, is that we don’t actually believe that she is locked in. The drama’s stakes never feel heightened because it is always Carol’s choice to come back to that office. This unfortunately plays out in faux-tension.
Oleanna is playing at the Sydney Theatre School until the 6th of July. For more information see www.sydneytheatreschool.com