‘An awful sort of treat’: OLEANNA – Arts Theatre ★★★★

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Arts Theatre, London – until 23 October 2021

This is a grand intellectual teaser of a show, and under Lucy Bailey’s almost mischievous direction does a good job of shaking up fashionable preconceptions about David Mamet’s 1992 play. It’s often cited as his prediction of the MeToo, cancel-culture age which didn’t kick off properly for another decade. Though of course American academia is always ahead of the curve on troublesome developments, and this one is set in the book-lined study of a liberal arts academic, meeting – in three separate interludes – with a student, female and from a less privileged cohort. She is not doing well on his course and starting to question what he means by his rather airily patronising ideas about how higher-education is just ‘hazing’ and delaying adolescence.

It’s a play which tends to split opinions. Some think the lecturer is a horrid patriarch who is both patronising and “grooming” the young woman who accuses him of these things and who regards as sexual rapacity his paternal touching of her shoulder and offer of solo tuition. Others think the young woman is an arrogant pain, one of the prim and pitiless young who have in the decades since pretty much taken over the world of judgement and cancellation. When the lecturer, preoccupied by calls from his wife over a tricky house purchase, finally cracks in fury at his ruined career the thing which sends him over the top (spoiler alert, but its a 20yr old play) is her censorious aside as she listens to his phone call “don’t call your wife Baby”.

But the joy of Bailey’s production, with Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy, is that she gives just enough to each side – until the final rage at least – and lets Slinger make the lecturer more of a confused, warmhearted human than a Mamettian patriach. Buy Sheehy, lounging arrogantly in her jeans or finally done up in a print frock and heels, sldo gets all her say, and her vulnerability is acknowledged while, to be brutal, her sanctimonious judgmentalism rouses in the viewer an unbecoming stifled desire to chuck a bucket of water over her..

The pace is cunning:  the first section just slow enough to make you think “actually, this man is a boring berk” ,  the second rising to a sense of real danger and hid unwisdom,  combined with a householderly sympathy for the fact that his job and new house are in danger while all the young woman is risking is, frankly, her self-esteem and dignity in the “support group” of the student body she is clearly driving.  For a while you think yes , the man’s a berk, but a well meaning and innocent one.  Then comes the final showdown when there is a sudden reversal of abusiveness, as  after her victimly “I speak for those who suffer what I suffer” becomes more sinister as she puts forward her group’s bonkers demands to have books banned and he fires up with liberal fury  – God, Mamet was ahead of the game there!.  And the disaster happens. And you see that both sides are pretty much hell,  but unfortunately blokes tend to be stronger.

I am not a Mamet-fan as a rule, his last one bored me rigid.  But  both performances were superb, subtly nuanced and horribly believable,  so finally this confection of elitism, sexual , psychological and academic politics was an awful sort of treat.   I am glad I bought a late-impulse ticket for a supposedly restricted view which was, in fact, fine.  WIth a slight inclination of the head.

Artstheatrewestend.co.uk.  To. 23 October.

Rating four

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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