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UK Productions in 1999

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1999 • Volume 6 • ISSN 1095-9629






To date, 1999 has been disappointing, notable only for several productions of Oleanna and for the import of Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, which ran at the Old Vic from 22 June to 19 July. Jay, of course, is one of Mamet’s regular collaborators, having appeared in several of the films, but his true vocation lies in his seemingly limitless ability to manipulate a pack of playing cards. Long acclaimed in America, his first major exposure in the UK came perhaps ten years ago, when the Vegas Man from House of Games suddenly appeared on the "Paul Daniels Show" throwing cards through the air and cutting them up with a pair of giant scissors, or projecting them into the hide of a water melon.

This kind of showmanship is prominent in the second half of this one-man guide to the outer limits of the illusionist’s art, which has enjoyed a successful run in the States and elsewhere for several years. On first thoughts, the Old Vic seems a curious choice of venue for Jay’s British performances. To gain the proximity to the audience necessary for the incredible sleight-of-hand he displays in the first half to achieve maximum impact, a bank of just 160 seats in ten tiers had been constructed on the stage, resulting in a top ticket price of £75, reportedly the highest ever charged for a non-musical West End show. Kevin Rigdon’s set was proportionately tiny, a Victorian dolls’ house of toys, books and assorted props, transforming this small section of the theatre into the nineteenth-century house of games the Old Vic had been in a former incarnation. Jay’s cup-and-balls routine is said to be given in homage to Ramo Samee, who performed the same illusion in the same house in the last century. Steeped in this history, the modified theatre became the perfect playing space for Jay’s act, which among other things is an illustrated and extraordinarily erudite lecture on the history of the card sharp by the distinguished editor of Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. It is this aspect of the Jay persona–the polymathic raconteur as confidence man–that most recalls Mamet, his friend and associate, who directed and co-devised the show.

If Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants is yet further evidence of the range of Mamet’s interests and talents, elsewhere there are worrying signs that the scale of that achievement is being obscured by the disproportionate attention still paid to Oleanna. A production at London’s White Bear (18 February-14 March), directed by Kenneth J. Bentley and featuring Michelle Witton as Carol and John Peters as John, reportedly removed any ambiguity about the alleged assault: John is innocent, and the focus of the play is shifted to the exercise of academic power and its creation of a class system. It is no doubt this dynamic interplay between intellectual and sexual power that makes the play such a powerful draw in university circles. In my own town, whose population barely exceeds 15,000 even when the 7,000 students are in residence, there have been three productions in the last four years, only one of which was mounted by the students themselves. Most recently, Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd performed Gareth Miles’s Welsh translation at Theatr Gwynedd in Bangor between 11 and 20 February, with Sian Summers directing. The prevalence of these locally-produced, small-scale productions is symptomatic of the way in which Oleanna is currently distorting perceptions of Mamet’s career, as is the similar over-emphasis on the play in academic publishing.

A flyer landed on my desk advertising a new production of Oleanna to be given by the Birmingham Stage Company at that city’s Old Rep Theatre between 28 September and 16 October 1999. Prefaced by the keywords ‘English, Education, PC, Relationships’, but mis-spelling the title of Glengarry Glen Ross in the blurb, it states that Oleanna "explores the debate over teacher/pupil relationships, the fundamentals of education and the limits of political correctness," and is "ideal for sixth form, college and University students." Roll up, roll up!

University of Wales, Bangor