David Mamet is a genius, a master of language and theatre. It seems you can’t deviate far from his original intent with such remarkable writing and such a simple premise. But there are, undoubtedly, things that can improve his script and others that can hinder it. Over all the Sydney Theatre School’s production of this classic was fairly standard, but it didn’t elevate the text and allow the audience to engage with the content in a way that was moving or monumental by any means.
Oleanna is a play that explores gender politics and education, sexual harassment and the exploitation of power. The play’s strength lies in its controversy, in its ability to subvert our expectations and furthermore, our understanding of the education system.
The two-person play, featuring a professor, John, (Jerome Pride) and a student, Carol (Grace O’Connell), observes the interesting power struggle between the pair and invites the audience to reflect on our relationships with each other.
Unfortunately, despite the strength of these two performers individually, the pairing didn’t feel right. Speech patterns and idiosyncrasies made their performances unusually similar, and then further rehearsed mannerisms seemed overused.
There were some issues with timing, with one of them missing a beat, interrupting late, or having to wait for the phone to ring once they ran out of scripted lines. The lighting was an issue too: the houselights on for the duration of the performance detracted from the intimacy of the play and the space. Such a technique is only really valuable when used in interactive theatre or in a verbatim setting. Wanting to be Brechtian doesn’t always deliver the political message you want if the techniques you use stop its audience engaging in the play. In this context, it wasn’t necessary – a more traditional approach would have sufficed. Also, scene changes were too long (despite the cover up of some upbeat jazz music), and some very immature blocking by director, Jerome Pride (note: played role of John), didn’t do the performance any favours.
As the play progressed they did find a comfort in their delivery. Naturally, the play does become more intense and to their credit, they kept up with the pace of Mamet’s writing, which I feel they struggled with in the opening scenes. And true, it was opening night, so perhaps things will settle with time, but at this stage it is just isn’t tight enough. A little more confidence, conviction and careful consideration of characters – keeping them strong and separate – will do this performance wonders.