David Mamet’s three-act Oleanna was originally presented at the Ustinov Studio back in December 2020 but if you missed it then don’t fret, it has returned for another run as it takes its audiences on a rollercoaster of emotion.
Powerful and poignant, this play revolves around the fundamental problems around sexual assault and the accusation process, telling the story from two very different viewpoints.
Split into three acts, the first revolves around a pupil's frustration with herself and her struggles within school as a teacher attempts to help. In the second, we discover the pupil has reported the teacher for sexual assault and things getting heated with accusations of privilege and political correctness thrown around. In the third act, things spiral out of control, threatening to destroy both characters.
Performances from both Jonathan Slinger as John, the teacher and Rosie Sheehy as Carol, the pupil, are exceptional. The distress from them both at different points in the play is almost tangible and their body language speaks as clearly as their words. Their delivery of the script feels fresh and alive, words bouncing around the teacher’s office walls with energy and tenacity.
Slinger and Sheehy are masters of pace, an area in which I’ve seen many two-actor plays fail at. The broken sentences, meaningful pauses and interjections between Jonathan and Rosie create such a realistic conversation and development of a complex relationship. This is an incredibly engaging way to tell a story, allowing you to feel like a fly on the wall in situations otherwise only experienced by two people.
The cleverly written script means you hear both sides of the story and understand each interpretation. It makes you think about how you interpret your own words and actions in contrast to how others might experience them. As well as questioning which character’s side of the story you lean towards and why.
At the beginning of the production, John tells a story about a pilot who realises he had zoned out whilst flying his passengers. He begins to panic and flap, thinking how was endangering all those lives, and in doing so, crashes the plane.
This acts as an all-encompassing metaphor for the piece. As John’s actions become worse after he is told he has messed up, so if he had stayed calm he may not have ‘crashed the plane’ quite as badly as he ends up doing.
Lucy Bailey’s direction is wonderfully uncomfortable and the climax of the third act isn’t for the faint-hearted, even if you’re expecting it. But that’s the joy of being back in the theatre in person. Seeing real people, showing real emotions and relishing in the powerful effect they can have on you.
For theatre that makes you feel, look no further than this production of Oleanna.
Oleanna is at the Ustinov until July 3.