Oleanna by David Mamet

Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JB.  Until 23rd October 2021.


David Mamet has had a substantial forty-year plus career writing plays and films which drill into the deeper recesses of the American psyche with unrelenting precision.  His masterpiece, surely, is Glengarry Glen Ross which premiered in London in 1983: a tale of four Chicago real-estate agents who engage in a variety of quasi-legal practices to sell dubious properties to unwitting prospective buyers.  Rapid, expletive-laden dialogue became a hallmark of Mamet’s style.

This revival of his 1992 play Oleanna is at the Arts Theatre.  It is not a masterpiece, although one must concede it is a powerful piece of theatre and, for its time, remarkably prescient.  Preceding the Me Too movement by a good twenty-five years, it is a two-hander concerning a college professor, John, who misjudges his interaction with a female student, Carol, and the devastating fall-out for both of them after she proceeds to exact retribution.  Its 80-minute span unfolds over three acts without an interval.

The main problem with the play is the clumsiness of the writing in the first act.  The dialogue, especially that of the professor, comes over as unreal bordering on preposterous, and to anyone well-acquainted with higher education the response has to be, “No way”.   Having set out his proposition – that different interpretations of small actions and conversational gambits can produce terrifying consequences – Mamet’s second and third acts follow with inexorable logic.

The two actors, Jonathan Slinger as John and Rosie Sheehy as Carol, are excellent.   They handle Mamet’s rapid fire dialogue – full of interruptions, fractured sentences, cuttings off – with absolute conviction, and their control of body language adds a further dimension: he slowly moving into her private space; she tightly wrapping her arms around herself as protection.

The play convincingly portrays two highly unlikeable people.  Carol starts as a student overwhelmed by doubt and pleading ignorance of much of what the professor tries to say.  He sees an opportunity to enhance his narcissism by forging, at least, a paternalistic relationship.  By the third act Carol, having been deep in meetings with her ‘group’ now feels she holds all the cards, and uses all the language of political correctness to humiliate her antagonist.  A final explosion of violence is a genuine theatrical coup.

Some will find the piece excessively wordy.  Similar territory, this time in the film business, was covered more convincingly in last year’s film The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green.  That made do with a tenth of the dialogue to be listened to here, to quietly devastating effect.   However, despite my reservations I think Mamet is saying something valuable: that when group identity supersedes individual autonomy we are on a dangerous path and true education becomes impossible.  The crazy wokeness currently gripping British and American universities is confirmation of that.

Not a masterpiece then, but a play which generates plenty of meaningful discussion, and you can’t ask for much more than that.


© Graham Buchan 2021