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Mamet's Oleanna continues to pack a punch



Review by Jack Foley

EMOTIVE theatre is always fun to watch, particularly because of the way in which it pulls its audiences this way and that.

David Mamet's Oleanna did just that when it was first released a decade ago, causing quite a sensation and dividing couples over its depiction of political correctness gone haywire.

Some critics have claimed that its revival at the Garrick has seen its power to shock become somewhat muted, given that attitudes have changed - but the audience on Saturday night (May 1, 2004) certainly gasped in all the right places, as the warped logic of one of its main protagonists unfolded.

The play stars two of Hollywood's brightest talents - Neil LaBute favourite, Aaron Eckhart (In The Company of Men/The Core) and the rapidly emerging Julia Stiles (Mona Lisa Smile/The Bourne Supremacy).

For Eckhart, in particular, it represents an interesting flipside to the male chauvinist he more often depicts in LaBute's pieces.

Here, he is very much the victim. An arrogant, but naive professor, whose decision to offer a student some extra-curricular lessons in order to improve her grade, has far-reaching consequences for his career and life in general.

In act one, he is very much in control, hypothesising over the need for higher education, and trying to empathise with Stiles' lack of understanding of his classes without seeming too patronising.

When Stiles breaks down, he puts his hand on her shoulders to comfort her; when she claims to feel 'stupid', he merely relates a story from his own childhood, in which he felt the same.

Eckhart isn't especially likeable, while doing this, particularly as he is constantly distracted by a ringing telephone and trying to broker a property deal, but his intentions seem fair and honest.

He even goes so far as to tell Stiles he likes her, and that his decision to help her is born from this sentiment.

By act two, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Stiles has accused Eckhart of taking advantage of her, of sexually harassing her, and insists he is an elitist, who craves power.

She has written to the board, which intends to investigate the complaints, and she has the backing of her 'group'.

Eckhart, who is subsequently suspended and facing the loss of his new family home, invites her back to his office for a second time and tries to reason with her - but the more he says, the worse his situation seems to get.

By act three, the full extent of Stiles' twisted fury reveals itself, as Eckhart, the broken man, makes one final stand, before being landed with a final, shocking revelation.

To reveal any more, would be to diminish the impact of the finale, suffice it to say that it packs a powerful punch, that certainly seemed to take the audiences' breath away.

The hard-hitting nature of the second and third acts is such that it more than makes up for the slightly ponderous opening, in which it is difficult to relate to the characters too strongly.

As a showcase of the talents of another of Hollywood's visitors, however, the play is exemplary, with both leads in superb form.

Eckhart, while cocky in the opening stages, displays a near-perfect fall from grace, as he struggles to make sense of the ludicrous charges before him, while attempting to stand up for the values which he holds dear.

While Stiles progresses from nervous student to complete bitch with almost effortless abandon, like a coiled viper, striking at her enemy when he is most vulnerable.

The final scenes between them are truly powerful, loaded with simmering intent and the frustrations that have gone before.

And Lindsay Posner's direction is such that the acts are short, sharp and to the point, expertly turning the tables on the protagonists, and keeping the audience on their toes to boot.

Mamet's piece may, in some people's eyes, lack the shock value of its original outing, but its power still remains, making it a challenging and downright compelling piece of theatre, with an explosive finale that has to be seen.

Oleanna, by David Mamet. WITH Aaron Eckhart and Julia Stiles. Directed by Lindsay Posner; designer, Christopher Oram; Lighting designer, Howard Harrison; Fight director, Terry King; Wardrobe, Ruth Stroude.
Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2.
Box Office: 0870 890 1104.

 

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