016 – Oleanna, by David Mamet
David Mamet’s explosive play Oleanna which shows how a seemingly benign conversation between a university professor and his female student can go so badly wrong caused intense controversy and divided audiences when it was first produced in 1992. The heated debate provoked by the play pitted naysayers of political correctness against those tired of the complacent abuses of patriarchal power. It is now being revived at the Theatre Royal Bath in a new production directed by Lucy Bailey. How will we see the sensitive issues it raises differently nearly 30 years on and in the light of the #MeToo movement? I’m delighted that Lucy Bailey joins us just as she finishes rehearsals to explore the nuances of the debate and reassess the relevance of the play’s messages.
David Mamet is the author of a number of acclaimed plays, including American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Speed the Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross. Oleanna opened in the US in 1992 in Cambridge, Massachusetts before an Off-Broadway run that year, followed by its UK premier at the Royal Court Theatre in 1993 in a production directed by none other than Harold Pinter, and starring David Suchet and Lia Williams. Mamet’s work certainly owes something to Pinter, with its spare, weaponised language and macho menace. Pinter said of Oleanna that “there can be no tougher or unflinching play”. Mamet also wrote and directed a film version of the play in 1994, with William H Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.
Note: This episode contains strong language.
Lucy Bailey’s wide ranging work as a director comprises many acclaimed productions, including a number of Shakespeare plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe, and the Theatre Royal Bath, the latter with a production of King Lear starring David Haig. Her renditions of Titus Andronicus and Macbeth at the Globe were both notorious and memorable for their powerful graphic imagery. Among her other credits, Lucy has also directed touring productions of Gaslight, The Graduate, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, and The Importance of Being Earnest.
On a different note, Lucy has a particular affinity for Agatha Christie. She has directed Love from a Stranger, and enjoyed both critical acclaim and huge popular success with her production of Witness for the Prosecution, which in a masterstroke she staged in the grand chamber of County Hall in London, a fitting setting for the classic courtroom drama.
And now, as if to emphasise her characteristic nerve and versatility she takes on the potentially contentious politics of Oleanna at the Theatre Royal Bath.
Lucy recommended Closer by Patrick Marber
The Footnotes to our episode on Oleanna include a clue to the arcane title of the play, a reminder of one of the real-life sources of the play’s gender politics, and how the theatre may reflect our national sub-conscious.
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Lynn Nottage’s play Clyde’s is set in a truck-stop diner on the outskirts of Reading, Pennsylvania. This is no ordinary diner though, because the short-order cooks that make the sandwiches that the diner is famous for are all ex-cons. The eponymous proprietor, Clyde, has not offered these characters a second chance out of the softness of her heart, but they discover some unexpected hope for their futures in their communal sufferings and support.
Lynn Nottage has won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, and as we record this episode the European premiere of Clyde’s is on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in London. I am delighted to be joined by the show’s director Lynette Linton, who also directed Nottage’s last play Sweat at the same theatre in 2018.
The poet Percy Shelley called King Lear “the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world”. It is a prodigious play in every sense. There are ten major roles, it has multiple significant plot lines, an elemental stormy setting, intense domestic conflict, and acts of war and violence which roll on with a propulsive tragic energy and conjure a challenging philosophical vision.
As we record this episode a new production directed by and starring Sir Kenneth Branagh arrives in London’s West End.
I am very pleased to be joined in this episode by Paul Prescott, who is an academic, writer and theatre practitioner specialising in Shakespearean drama.
Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge tells the tragic story of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman who works on the docks under Brooklyn Bridge. Eddie lives with his wife Beatrice and 17-year old niece, Catherine, whom they have cared for since she was a child. But Catherine is no longer a child, and her natural desire to pursue her own life will tragically rupture the lives of this family and the close-knit immigrant community of Red Hook.
As we record this episode a new production of A View from the Bridge is touring the UK, and I’m delighted to talk with its director, Holly Race Roughan, about this powerful play.