Scene It: Oleanna, a call to reflect, feel, and listen to understand

October 1, 2018

Oleanna, the 1992 two-hander by David Mamet, about a conversation-turned-confrontation between a university professor and his student who accuses him of sexual harassment, is a play that always gets a reaction —whether it’s the appropriate reaction is part of the debate that accompanies the play. If the criterion for good, impact theatre is ‘it makes you feel’, then Mamet wins every time, regardless of the interpretation of his work. The current staging of Oleanna at the Fugard Theatre is no different. No audience member will walk out of Oleanna without feeling something, and most probably something completely different to the person sitting next to them.

 

Upfront, I must confess I’m a huge fan of all things Mamet —I love the way his texts toy with my mind and therefore have certain set opinions. As such, I’ve been struggling to write this review, mulling it over, rewriting it, and trying to balance the high quality of the current Oleanna staging with my thoughts on Mamet. 

 

I’ve been questioning why I’m battling to find the right words. But perhaps that is it, my internal battle comes down to a battle of words, conflict, and potential misunderstanding and miscommunication, which is what Oleanna (as this Mamet-fan perceives it) is all about. 

 

Mamet is a master of allusion. It's in revealing the non-obvious themes and questions hiding in the shadows of the relationships at play (in any of his texts) that the layers of the allusions become accessible to an audience and a Mamet-play reaches its full potential.

Mamet himself has commented that ‘[t]he theatre has become vastly political' resulting in the recasting of melodrama as politics, and in so doing 'giving the weeping audience not only the pleasure of a good cry, but also a pat on the back'. He tries to avoid that transformed-form of melodrama. He does not write with the aim of audience approval, but rather seeks to challenge his audience to look 'beyond the conscious'. 

 

Through his carefully crafted and intentionally  complex scenarios, he puts on display relationships in all forms and facets, without forcing any clear conclusions. If there is an issue at question in his play (in Oleanna that would be misogyny), it’s placed there as a challenge to look beyond that obvious trigger, to see what is the truth behind the character-interactions: What informs their reactions, rather than what are their reactions, is the relevant consideration.

 

Furthermore, Mamet's conversational style with which he manipulates the rhetoric and the rhythm of language is so unique that people have taken to referring to it as Mametian. A play with such a Mametian style brings with it fast-paced dialogue with characters constantly cutting each other off. You'll find words and sentences being repeated for calculated emphasis; the meaning of those emphasised words and sentences (as well as the associated character dynamics) ever changing.

 

In the Greg Karvellas directed Fugard Theatre staging of Oleanna, Alan Committie (John) and Nicole Fortuin (Carol) do justice to that required rhythm. As a production Oleanna is sleek: the direction clear, the performance powerful, and the design striking. For this it deserves applause and praise.

However, as an admirer of Mamet’s work, I would have liked the unpacking of the rhetoric to grapple a bit more with the non-obvious layers of the play —the source or origin of the differences in character-perspectives, rather than the obvious on-the-nose issue of the alleged sexual harassment. For this reviewer, considerations of very human reactions to power, and the abuse of that power at the core of the interaction between the flawed characters, are slightly overshadowed by the exploration of the issue. Subjectively viewed, there's an inbalance between the obvious and the non-obvious. 

 

Neverthless, the fact that John and Carol are both flawed characters are skillfully highlighted. That allows for the production to still communicate to the audience that because both John and Carol are flawed they’re both wrong by implication. So, whichever side of their argument you may find yourself most inclined to support or sympathise with, you'll be wrong too and as flawed. In doing so, the production succeeds in paying tribute to Mamet by holding a mirror up to its audience.

 

The Fugard's staging of Oleanna also hits the mark in allowing for your support of either John or Carol to constantly switch from one to the other —revealing that there are always three sides to the 'truth'— as you realise that they both listen to respond, rather than to understand —a symptom of the times we live in. 

This realisation, that both John and Carol are very quick to judge but easily angered when they find themselves judged in turn, is clearly communicated and reflected by the character-dominance shift between Act One and Act Two. In the former, Committie eloquently dominates with John taking control of the conversation, while the latter sees Fortuin impressively transform Carol from meek and subordinate to opinionated and empowered as she takes control of the dialogue's direction. Act Three, their ultimate stand-off of emotionally-charged reactions, is appropriately unsettling. In not revealing any resolution to the conflict at the core of the conversation, Act Three transfers John and Carol's frustrations with their individual realities to the audience. 

 

Committie succeeds in portraying John as a condescending, opinionated, and ignorant chauvinist (a man who does not know that he does not know), but curbs that characterisation just enough to stop short of making John come across as a creep. This show of restraint cleverly makes allowance for the possibility of audience sympathy.

 

In turn, Fortuin brilliantly matches Committie’s John by balancing Carol’s vulnerability with her will to understand, be understood, and to be heard. With every new reveal of Carol’s character-development Fortuin surprises you. The collective impact of her impressive reveals are of such a nature and to such a degree that you're as much manipulated by her in your reactions to Carol, as John arguably is by Carol's gain in control and power.

Oleanna can (and has) been described as a ‘confrontational drama’. That is a loaded description with as many meanings and nuances as the play itself. But perhaps the key to unpacking any reaction to the confrontational and drama elements of Oleanna lies in John’s response to Carol’s question as to the meaning of the phrase, ‘a term of art’:

 

'It seems to mean a term, which has come, through its use, to mean something more specific than the words would, to someone not acquainted with them… indicate. That, I believe, is what a ‘term of art,' would mean.'

 

To which Carol frankly responds, 'You don't know what it means...?'. 

 

Much like John and Carol, we all want to understand, and in seeing Oleanna we’re all going to feel something in response to that want, as well as in reaction to the fear of not understanding.

 

That simply reinforces the reality that theatre allows for various interpretations and choices of the same ‘term of art’. So, the fact that it appears that the Fugard’s Oleanna as a choice places most of its emphasis on  the harrassment accusation (well-informed by the socio-economic backstory of each character) and toxic masculinity must be respected.

Then putting aside the fact that the audience response and association with the current-day #MeToo context is arguably a bit too obvious for a Mamet play, the play must be reviewed in the context of its choices and with an understanding that every audience member has a right to receive the words brought to life on stage by any given performance in a manner that best speaks to every individual audience member in that given moment. So understood and respected, this Oleanna is one of the best theatre productions I have seen this year.

 

Then, from this audience member's perspective, as understood in my moment of experiencing Oleanna... 

 

Would I personally have liked the underlying issues of emotional safety in a political (in)correctness battle of wills and words to come out stronger for my own Mamet-pleasure? Yes. 

 

Does the fact that, in my view, the production gravitates more to the issue-effect rather than the issue-cause detract from this Oleanna staging being good theatre? No. 

 

The Fugard's Oleanna delivers on its billed promise of a 'volatile drama [that] will ignite discussion and debate', as it still dares audience members to reflect on the themes they take from it as relevant to them, and invites them to feel a range of associated emotions. 

 

Ultimately, after seeing the production, there are two debates at play: on the one side it’s whether it's John who has been unjustly misunderstood, or Carol who has been disrespected by male stereotypes, on the other side it's whether this is classic Mamet or rather Mamet reinterpreted for present day realities? In the end, both sides of the same coin of the Fugard's Oleanna lead to the same conclusion: It all makes for great drama.

 

You have until 20 October 2018 to see Alan Committie and Nicole Fortuin fervently take on the roles of John and Carol in Mamet's controversial Oleanna at the Fugard Theatre. Tickets can be booked online at thefugard.com.

 

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