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  The Theatreguide.London Review


Oleanna
Garrick Theatre, Spring 2004

The actors are wooden. The direction is pedestrian, creating inexcusable lapses in blocking and deadly delivery. The play is hardly the world's longest, so putting an interval after barely 35 minutes of action breaks the momentum to say the least.

Spread across three intense scenes, this is a return of David Mamet's study in the destructiveness of the political correctness that swept America in the Eighties, charting the disintegrating relationship between a university lecturer and a struggling student.

In the role of the student, desperate for the empowerment of higher education, Julia Stiles clearly knows where she wants the play to go, and it's unnerving to watch her cherubic features turn to steel as her initial insecurity turns to the fury of what we take for a woman scorned. But there is little for her to push against. As her lecturer and would-be mentor, Aaron Eckhart gamely attempts to evoke a well-meaning but vain intellectual in this two-hander, but he fails to bring any depth to match Stiles' efforts.

Mamet's intention is that our sympathy should veer from one to the other since the point is that they need each other not only as teacher and student, but socially, generationally, perhaps sexually. But even as Eckhart watches the tables turn against him in his professional and domestic life (that phone on his office desk poised to interrupt crucial moments with its insistent ringing from home) he remains frustratingly one-dimensional.

It all sounds distinctly unpromising but there is more afoot here than is first apparent. Director Lindsay Posner is cunningly (if lazily) reprising his coup of last year -- Mamet's Sexual Perversity In Chicago, starring two similar US screen imports and which defied the critics by pulling the public in their droves. It's good too to hear an American play performed with real accents rather than the usual mangled efforts from dialect-deaf Brits.

There has been growing debate over whether Mamet's play is relevant or even any good. While the shambles of this production doesn't provide any pointers, it does expose the bones of the play both dramatically and thematically.

Which leads to my perverse recommendation to go: if you already know the play, it somehow provides an intriguing insight into Mamet's technique by sheer dint of doing it badly; if you don't know the play, you'll find much to discuss afterwards even if it's only to ask why so many of the obvious issues were fluffed.

So don't go expecting a great play or great performances, rather a show that does what all good theatre should do: put bums on seats to a wide cross-section of theatregoers that includes those wouldn't usually fork out for a West End (or indeed Broadway) night out. And avoid the seats to the left of the auditorium, otherwise you'll miss much of Stiles' performance.

Nick Awde

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Review - Oleanna - Garrick 2004