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.
It is September 1941. German physicist Werner Heisenberg is visiting his friend and former colleague, Danish physicist Niels Bohr at his home in Copenhagen. Denmark is occupied by the Third Reich, and both men are under surveillance by the Gestapo. What is the purpose of their meeting at this charged time? Did they confer about the potential to build weapons based on the emerging knowledge of nuclear fission? Did Heisenberg wish to warn Bohr about the growing threat to Danish Jews? These questions and more are explored in Michael Frayn’s absorbing play Copenhagen. I’m delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the playwright himself.
John Webster’s 400-year-old play The Duchess of Malfi is a potboiler of courtly love, intrigue and murder. It has endured not just for its bloody plot, but for its poetic language and the indomitable character of its protagonist. The Duchess remains a female paradigm for a patriarchal world. Joining us to explore this classic anew is Professor Emma Smith from Hertford College, Oxford, an expert on early modern drama.
Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner c Simon Annand
Florian Zeller’s disturbing and moving play The Father presents a piercing portrait of a family living with dementia. Anyone who has witnessed the cruel effects of the disease will recognise painful truths in the play, and everyone will be unsettled by its inventive dramatic form. The Father premiered in Bath in 2014 before award-winning runs in London and on Broadway. It has now also been made into a feature film with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman due for UK release in January 2021. I’m delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the renowned playwright and screenwriter Sir Christopher Hampton, who translated the original play and co-wrote the film’s screenplay
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 …