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 has comprised 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.
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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.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.
One Podcast Two Plays! Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic A Servant to Two Masters and Richard Bean’s hilarious update One Man Two Guvnors. We explore all of the ingredients of the original play in the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, as well as how Bean translated these so successfully into his smash hit at the National Theatre. Writer and director Justin Greene joins me to sample this multi-course theatrical banquet. (Commedia afficionados will appreciate the gourmet references!).
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …