Sunday, 10 May 2009

Oleanna - Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Oleanna by David Mammet
Director: Iqbal Kahn
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Iqbal Khan, who’s worked at the National Theatre and with Harold Pinter, is currently making his directorial debut at the Bolton Octagon with David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’.

As with any Mamet play, ‘Oleanna’ isn’t a particularly easy or enjoyable experience and one leaves the theatre thankful for the fact that this intense and stressful play is mercifully short. ‘Oleanna’ tells the story of a relationship between a university professor John and his struggling student Carol. It begins innocently enough with Carol approaching John for help as she’s failing his course. Instead of giving her conventional advice, the professor explains to Carol his entire philosophy of education. She is offended by some of what he says, and they argue, but their eventual parting seems to be amicable. After the interval however the audience slowly realise that Carol has in fact filed a protest against the professor, accusing him of sexual harassment. Her charges are accurate in fact, but neither intent nor context are considered. Bolstered by a group of nameless, faceless supporters, Carol is no longer the nervous, uncertain girl of act one and a primal power struggle ensues.

This is undoubtedly a solid piece of writing by Mamet which not only explores the topics of political correctness and sexual harassment but also creates an absorbing albeit wordy intellectual sparring match where there is no absolute truth. The play ultimately leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions.

As is always the case, Mamet's dialogue has a rhythm and cadence all its own and to a degree director Khan has used this to full effect. Khan has generally avoided the trap of making this a scholarly assessment of the difference of perspectives, by ensuring that the dialogue is snappy and well paced. This could occasionally benefit from slowing down as the lightning fast rapport between John and Carol sometimes becomes exhausting and rather frustrating.

There are some beautiful moments of directorial sleight of hand particularly in Act II where the subtleties of Carol and John’s status switch are executed through some very simple yet effective staging. However there are also moments when the direction appears a little heavy handed and inconsistent, The awkward and clumsy fight scene at the end detracted from what was meant to be the climactic explosion of the play and a moment where the audiences senses and emotions, rather than their intellects, needed to be engaged.

Colin Stinton and Kosher Engler both give solid performances as the sparring professor and student and establish a clear rapport between the characters. Engler particularly shines as her character gains in confidence and strength and her transformation from initial insecurity to controlled manipulation is full of conviction.

Ciaran Bagnall’s spark and stylish set also fits the production and the sharp lighting design accentuates the two characters inability to hide from each other or their actions.

This is a play worth seeing. There are moments of beautifully executed performances and direction. However, the inconsistencies need to be ironed out to produce the air of incredulity and dispute which this piece of writing so desperately needs the audience to take away with them, if it is to rise above being merely a tedious academic examination of the truth.

Photos: Ian Tilton
Oleanna runs at the Octagon until Sat 23rd May
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