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Oleanna

Accents aside, the most obvious difference between this and the London production lay in the speed of delivery. Pinter had slowed the play to an unnatural degree, which allowed for a more nuanced exploration of the relationship, but failed to capture the evidently explosive quality of earlier American performances. In comparison, Theatr Clwyd's production was a rollercoaster ride, which, when allied with John's youthfulness, again tended to emphasise the sexuality in the encounter.

OLEANNA

By David Mamet

Theatr Gwynedd, Bangor. 11 and 12 May 1995

Playhouse, Salisbury. March-April 1996

Two recent regional productions of Oleanna in Britain have provided interpretations markedly different from Harold Pinter's in London. Theatr Clwyd performed the play at Mold throughout April 1995, before touring Wales in May, in a production directed by Deborah Bruce, with a functional representational design by John Page. John was performed by American actor Rolf Saxon, while English actress Janan Kubba played Carol. This neatly turned to advantage a perennial problem (try as one might, one could not help noticing the difficulty David Suchet and Lia Williams were having with their American accents in Pinter's production) and in fact reinforced the play's thematic emphasis on linguistic power: John, superficially at ease with words; Carol, audibly struggling to understand and to be understood.

Carol's personal anxieties were signified by her nervous tugging at the clothing around her waist, and in the post-performance "talkback," Bruce revealed that she and Kubba had agreed between themselves on the nature of the personal matter Carol wanted to discuss with John, but that Saxon had been given no indication as to what the problem was, creating a further obstacle to mutual understanding. Pinter has suggested that at one level Oleanna dramatises the suppressed sexual tensions in the father-daughter relationship, although the sexual emphases in Theatr Clwyd's production were of a different kind, because Rolf Saxon's John was much younger in both appearance and behaviour than David Suchet's, as in his rather immature irritability and gestures of self-rebuke when Carol reproached him for his constant interruptions.

Accents aside, the most obvious difference between this and the London production lay in the speed of delivery. Pinter had slowed the play to an unnatural degree, which allowed for a more nuanced exploration of the relationship, but failed to capture the evidently explosive quality of earlier American performances. In comparison, Theatr Clwyd's production was a rollercoaster ride, which, when allied with John's youthfulness, again tended to emphasise the sexuality in the encounter.

It is striking how frequently performances of this play, as here, are framed in ways which limit the range of audience response. In DMR 2 (Fall 1995), Joseph Csicsila described the effects of a three-song musical prologue and a post-performance panel discussion on sexual harassment when the play was performed in Las Vegas in September 1995. Theatr Clwyd's devices were less grotesque, but still in evidence in the programme, which negated Christopher Bigsby's wide-ranging discussion of Mamet and Oleanna by devoting six pages to the issue of sexual harassment in the university. The "talkback" was not focused on a specific issue, but had the effect of mirroring the frustrations of the play: predictably, there was no debate, merely a range of entrenched opinions and points which failed to interconnect.

More recently, a regional production at Salisbury Playhouse, which I did not see, ran Mamet's play in repertory with Willy Russell's Educating Rita (1979), an experiment which again is likely to encourage the audience to see Oleanna as narrowly issue-based. Paul Taylor's review in The Independent (25 March) noted that Russell's play "is keenly alive to the sadness at the heart of teaching, a process that ideally involves empowering people not to need you any more." The generosity, as well as abuse, of teaching has of course been a theme of Mamet's throughout his career, and playing Oleanna alongside Educating Rita brings out a wider theme of the American play: the loss even of the possibility of innocence. Both plays at Salisbury were directed by Jonathan Church and featured the same actors, with Carolyn Backhouse playing Rita and Carol, and Nicholas Lumley playing Frank and John. Again, reviewers described this Oleanna as pacier than Pinter's, while placing the audience along two sides of Ruari Murchison's triangular set generated a feeling of claustrophobia. One probably cannot blame the production itself for Charles Spencer's description of Oleanna in the Daily Telegraph (25 March) as the "American play in which a dim female student takes spectacular revenge on her decent but emotionally distant professor by learning the rules of political correctness," a play in which "Mamet's heart is in the right reactionary place" but which "would benefit from more ambivalent shades of grey." One can, however, suggest the use of obvious framing devices will help to remove those "shades of grey" and continue to obscure the richness of the play.

STEVEN PRICE

University of Wales, Bangor

(Ed Note: "theatr, " without the "e, " is correct Welsh).