Jonathan Slinger as John and Rosie Sheehy as Carol. Picture: Nobby Clark


Malvern Theatres


Psychological drama, political and cultural war, David Mamet’s intense play has powerful contemporary relevance.

A professor in his study seeks to help a student who professes that she fails to understand him, his lectures and his writing. They both have a tendency to talk over each other, there is plenty of communication and zero understanding.

It emerges that she represents a ‘group’, she has a distinct and angry agenda. His attempts to ‘help’ are misguided and ill-advised on many counts, and a deep and serious power struggle ensues.

As Carol, the student, begins to twist and misinterpret John’s words and actions, she puts a sinister interpretation on many of them and formulates these into a complaint to the ‘Tenure Committee’ in order to shatter his career prospects and ultimately his whole life.

She sees herself as representing the victims of a society and culture that has allowed powerful individuals to exploit and victimise the gender and class she represents; she ultimately is out for revenge and a reversal of power roles; he must have a taste of his own medicine.

‘ I would like you to hear me out’ yells one of them at a certain point – little chance of that on either part. For all the arguments, explanations, pleadings, questions and pronunciations, there is little effective listening, hearing, insight and understanding of each other.

This is so strongly echoed in the politics and culture debates in our society in 2021, that one might be tempted to think Mamet wrote this in the last five years. However, the play premiered in 1992 in the USA and in 1993 in the UK and made a huge impact with its exploration of sexual harassment, feminism, institutional culture power wars etc. It is hugely poignant, and in the moments of darkness between the scenes, there was a stunned silence in the auditorium.

Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy perform their roles with great power and intensity. Slinger’s portrayal of John’s increasing frustration, anger and ultimately despair is very effective. That is strongly matched by the unfolding of Carol’s agenda by Rosie Sheehy. Their performances are powerful, intense, compelling and ultimately distressing.

Mamet’s intention was to present a balanced scenario where neither is clearly in the right; however Carol’s unreasonableness and resort to blackmail are significantly more ugly than John’s presumption and condescension.

The lighting (Oliver Fenwick) and design (Alex Eales) provide the simple but perfectly effective context for this compelling action. The white light at the end of the play give a sense of the iciness and horror of the conclusion. Lucy Bailey’s direction of this manages to give excellent pace and timing, as well as drawing outstanding performances from the two performers.

This evening at the theatre is not for the faint-hearted, but alarmingly highlights some of the issues in the culture wars of our day. ‘Oleanna’ runs at the Malvern Festival Theatre till Saturday 17th before heading on to the West End.

Timothy Crow


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