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
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
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.