Adam Ishaque reviews ‘Oleanna’ directed by Matthew Knapp and produced by James Hall, which went up as a part of the On the Rocks Festival.
Oleanna is a piece of theatre that explores many ideas, as a good piece should. Delving into ideas of education, sexuality, humanity, and equality, the teacher-student relationship transcends the stage to the audience, and gives us a new insight. It was especially apt to present at a university. Where many students go from school to university without truly considering their actions, Oleanna shows us the harsh truth of surrendering to our supposed betters.
The two-hander by David Mamet is widely known and revered. The story concerns John (Oliver Lennard), a university professor about to be granted tenure, and Carol (Hannah Ayesha Ritchie), a naïve student who does not seem to understand how she can improve her grades. The story evolves into a power-play where Carol tries to gain the upper hand by reporting John’s indecent behaviour to the tenure committee and effectually ruining his professional career and family life.
Matthew Knapp’s direction served well in presenting this power-play. The set consisted of two chairs, a filled bookshelf, and a desk adorned with John’s files, his telephone and a picture (assumed to be of his family). The desk was the symbol of power. As the play progresses John moves from behind his desk to the student’s chair while Carol stands threateningly at the desk, displaying the shift in power as Carol’s actions chip away at John’s life and he changes from the educator to the learner.
The casting choices were similarly superb. A final year and a first year actor presented the experienced teacher and vulnerable student impeccably well. With the evolution of their characters throughout the show, Oliver Lennard and Hannah Ayesha Ritchie stood up to the task of bringing this spectacle to an eager audience. They both had their moments to shine and they took advantage of each one.
Ingrained in Oleanna is the debate of who is right – who is the one we should side with? In the Director’s Note, Knapp states that both are equally right and wrong. Sexual harassment is not to be excused (in whatever form) but is it worth the the life of a person? It was wise not to present either side with particular dominance. One can expect Mamet wrote the play with this debate in mind and it is a shame some directors choose to ignore this. Thankfully, Knapp presented Oleanna for what it was with the inherent unanswerable question – who is the true victim?