Theatre Review: Oleanna

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The Nuffield Theatre

Dir. Robin Peters & Michael Cole.
Prod. Matthew Power

A University audience is arguably the type most likely to appreciate Oleanna (1992), David Mamet’s both-barreled shot on political correctness and/ or higher education. It’s either/or, depending on your perspective (or gender).

The thought process of a lecturer who has dealt with a student’s insignificant little complaint, or of a student feeling domineered by a teacher’s intellect and comfort are processes that are likely to resonate amongst a University audience, because many of them have been there. It’s likely to polarise the more feminist, politically correct attendees, as they bear witness to the thoughtless but innocent rhetoric of a Professor being twisted against him by way of feminism and political correctness. It questions the non-violent amongst us who silently cheer when the Professor finally batters his vindictive student.

It takes two performers of considerable mettle and memory to make a text consisting mostly of interrupted constructions and lengthy philosophical spiels entertaining. Jon S. Coleman (John), who you may remember as O’Trigger in The Rivals, and Holly Francis (Carol) are two such performers, and LUTG’s production of Oleanna didn’t skip a beat.

Entering the theatre, we are greeted by a dark stage, a ringing telephone ominously lit and leaving us as fixated on it as John is throughout. While the Nuffield Theatre is a most spacious auditorium, 90% of the stage was blacked out to ensure that the audience saw nothing more than two people in a claustrophobic office, leaving only the dialogue and mannerisms to pay attention to. They didn’t stop at minimal staging, however. The play is three acts long, yet it ran without an interval. Initially, one might feel that this would be detrimental to the belief that weeks pass between each act.

Perhaps John would have benefited from becoming gradually disheveled and unwell as his stress levels rise, and a change into some more businesslike clothes could potentially have complemented Carol’s increasingly tight hold over John. However, such is the intensity of the piece, that any prolonged interruption could well have spoiled the tension that steadily rose throughout. No call for time was the right call to make, and the extended intake of breath throughout the play smoothly transitioned to a gasp, as John finally flipped his lid and manhandled Carol.

Jon S. Coleman is too young to be playing a middle-aged Professor, which is how John is almost always portrayed. This never once hindered the believability of his character – Jon’s John passes for 35-39, and these days a teacher dressed in a hip skinny tie is a hideous sight to see, but not an unusual one. If a case were to be made for disliking the Professor, then his ‘good evening Mr. Bond’ sneer and villainous goatee would serve as the clinching evidence. If a case were to be made to sympathise with him, then Coleman’s malleability, which saw him flitting through self-assurance, frustration and fury between heartbeats would win it. As well as that, his physical prowess, RP accent (against Francis’ Bradford drawl) and the dismissive delivery in the first act firmly cemented him, initially, as the dominant character.

Holly Francis, a plain and small-built lady, is physically perfect for the role of Carol. The subtler of the two, Francis changed her posture and face from act-to-act correlate with the leverage she gains. In act one, she is quite, quite gormless and clearly incapable of comprehending anything that John says to her. In act two, it is noticeable that she is silently ticking over and figuring out ways to turn John’s words and actions against him. By act three, although now possessing the upper-hand, her pursed lips and clenched fists shudder enough for one to believe that she may well be thoroughly uncomfortable, ready to implode under the weight of her newfound venomous influence.

Normally I’d criticise an actor for reeling off lines without conviction, something which Francis tended to do when damning John for his failings. But in this instance, that is entirely the point. The sudden verbosity and savvy in act two (in contrast to her dipshittedness in act one) is forced, heightening the idea that Carol is sightlessly regurgitating ideals that her ‘group’ (presumably a congregation of militant feminists) has instilled into her. Francis was able to make one feel somewhat sorry for Carol, despite the ugliness of her character.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that Peter’s and Cole’s direction was pillared by their care for and knowledge of Oleanna, and they truly were the best men for the job of nurturing and eliciting such strong performances. To put it intertextually: I think that they expressed the author’s feelings in the way that they intended, based on their results.

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