Oleanna, Bath Theatre Royal Ustinov Studio

WHEN David Mamet’s play Oleanna first appeared back in 1992, 14 years before the “Me Too” movement saw the light of social media day, it was so divisively controversial that it was even blamed for the break-up of marriages.

Interestingly, as the current Lucy Bailey production in Bath proves, it has lost none of its bite and even increased its relevancy. It still all depends on who you believe, and who you believe in.

I left the Ustinov convinced I had seen a version in which Carol was “to blame”, and wondering if the play could be performed rather like Robert Icke’s Mary Stuart, when the flip of a coin would allow these exceptional actors to do it “the other way”. It would only take a hair’s breadth of nuance and body language, and it would be SO clear that John was guilty as charged … fascinating prospect.

Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy are back in Bath for the production, set on an American college campus in Professor John’s book-lined office. It starts as the nervous Carol is questioning her grades and explaining her lack of understanding of the course and its teacher. He’s on the phone to his insistent wife, talking about the house they are negotiating to buy.

Are you going to believe that the professor is prepared to go through hoops to help the often-incoherent student to understand how to succeed, without any thought of recompense?  Or are you going to believe that his pretentious and paternalistic bargaining has her as prey in his sights?  Or perhaps that he’s so bamboozled by his wife’s pestering that he isn’t listening to his student at all, and that just might be pissing her off mightily.

You can be sure of a lively conversation with your companion on the way home, time spent without the intervention of Covid, sharpening up your opinions on Me Too, head full of images of Harvey Weinstein, Gerard Depardieu, Kevin Spacey, Placido Domingo, Bill Cosby, Rolf Harris, James Levine, Cuba Gooding Jnr … the list goes on.

Is there no smoke without fire, or can sticks and stones break your bones but words never hurt you? How much touching, comforting and flirting are normal and when is the line crossed?

Rosie Sheehy and Jonathan Slinger play it magnificently for real, shining the light on every glance and intonation and gesture in Lucy Bailey’s powerful production.

The intimate Ustinov Studio is socially distanced, Covid-compliant and less than half full for this terrific reading of a brilliant play, which returns to the Ustinov from 4th to 16th January.


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