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.
The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.
The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.
Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.
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 …