Oleanna in London
Pinter directs Oleanna. Whereas Mamet's badly misconceived production had turned into a comicbook potboiler satirizing Political Correctness in general and sexual harassment charges in particular, Pinter's production uncovered the true heart of the play.
By David Mamet
Royal Court Theatre Productions,
Duke of York's Theatre, London
12 October 1993
In a recent talk with members of the Dramatists Guild in New York, David Mamet confessed that he had had serious misgivings about directing his play Oleanna , misgivings which turned out to be prophetic: his 1992 off-Broadway production was deeply flawed, skewing a text that Mamet had conceived of as a classically structured tragedy into melodrama. Despite the visual clue of two separate covers for the Playbill program—one featuring the seated figure of a man, the other the seated figure of a woman, each with a target inscribed on its chest—New York audiences repeatedly hissed a single '"villain": Mamet's production so insidiously manipulated audience sympathy that only the female character became the object of attack. As Carol, Rebecca Pidgeon was encouraged (or, at the very least, permitted) by Mamet to play the role as a frump and neurotic, with a peculiar singsong voice that rendered her an automaton. Who could possibly care anything for a robot especially when her antagonist possessed the boyish good looks and cornfed charm of the terminally affable William H. Macy?
The brilliance of Harold Pinter's London production of Oleanna (which opened at the Royal Court Theatre in June 1993 and then transferred to the West End in September) resided in its subtle recuperation of the essential evenhandedness of Mamet's text. Whereas Mamet's badly misconceived production had turned Oleanna into a comicbook potboiler satirizing Political Correctness in general and sexual harassment charges in particular, Pinter's production uncovered the true heart of the play. As Mamet has stated, Oleanna is "a play about the uses and abuses of power, and the corruption is on  both sides" (my emphasis). Pinter (to whom Mamet dedicated Glengarry Glen Ross ) knows a thing or two about dramatizing the uses and abuses of power, and about how to portray that struggle for power subtextually; his production proved to be the perfect marriage of director and play.
In Pinter's richly nuanced production, the power struggle between female student and male professor constantly seesawed throughout, as did the sympathies of the audience. Lia Williams's Carol was far more human, and therefore believable, than her New York counterpart—frightened and vulnerable in her initial helplessness, smug and arrogant as she slowly inched her way toward a painful, exultant, and decidedly Pyrrhic "victory." Similarly, David Suchet captured wonderfully the paradoxes and ambiguity of John; his surface generosity and concern could not entirely mask an underlying unctuousness and condescension that were deeply disturbing. Carol's battle for psychic "territory" was reflected in Pinter's gradually allowing her to claim more and more physical space. In scene 1, power rested firmly with the professor—whether seated upstage behind his desk, and thus the object of Carol's (and the audience's) inevitable focus, or roaming around the office at will. If all the world's a stage, then this stage (and this world) clearly belonged to John. By the end of the production, the power positions had reversed: John spent most of scene 3 occupying a small chair placed extreme downstage left, thereby subtly shifting the audience's axis of vision so that Carol now appeared to be sitting behind the desk while John became the "supplicant." And it was Carol who now felt free to pace the stage, to measure the patriarchal "kingdom," to perch proprietarily on the edge of John's desk—her physical mobility the outward sign of a much more significant inner movement.
The physical space in which Mamet's combatants struggled so fiercely for ascendancy in Pinter's production—skillfully designed by Eileen Diss and evocatively lit by Gerry Jenkinson—was bare and skeletal. Having correctly intuited that the set of a Mamet play is simultaneously both literal and metaphoric, Diss simply sketched in the office rather than rendering it realistically. (Mamet's "realism" is ultimately as minimalist as every other aspect of his drama.) There were thus none of the trappings one might reasonably expect to find in a realistic University office: bookcases, say, or posters on the walls—or, for that matter, walls. The office was surrounded by infinite blackness, a reminder of the larger world always lurking beyond the narrow confines of Mamet's seemingly specific settings.
Pinter's instinctive grasp of the nuances and complexities of Oleanna so manifest in this production failed him only once: in his decision—made, the program informed us, "with the agreement of the author"—to scrap the ending of the play as performed in New York and as published in both the American and British editions of the text and revert instead to Mamet's original ending. In the London production, John's explosively shocking physical abuse of Carol was followed by yet another verbal confrontation, with John repeatedly expressing his horror ("O Lord, forgive me") and confusion ('What happened here today?") and Carol finally persuading him to read aloud the "confession" composed for him by her Group—a mea culpa in which he admitted "failing the young." Compared to Mamet's revised ending—". . . yes. That's right," Carol says enigmatically to herself, cowering on the floor after her savage beating—the original seemed clumsy and anticlimactic. Pinter, of all people, should have known better: in the architecture of Mamet's plays—as in Pinter's—less is invariably more.
York University, Toronto