Venue: Drama Barn
I am a huge fan of David Mamet’s writing, which means I am both excited and anxious whenever informed that one of his plays is being realised, especially by students. The main trouble with doing Mamet in the Drama Barn is that his staggeringly realistic, conversational dialogue, with its interruptions, stuttering and overlapping is difficult to perfect in the few weeks available, making it all the more impressive that Rosa Crompton’s production achieved this to a near-professional standard.
The story of Carol (Saffia Sage), a student who accuses her teacher John (Max Fitzroy-Stone) of sexual harassment, Oleanna makes for tense viewing. The set was an interesting clash of realism and symbolism—a lecturer’s office flanked by walls and floors covered in pages, representative of the way in which both characters are trapped by words. The acting was incredible, both parts being played with considerable naturalism and aplomb, and really drawing the audience into the intimacy of the drama. Fitzroy-Stone’s depiction of the pompous, grandiloquent lecturer was just alluring enough to gain the audience’s sympathies, and Sage’s change from innocent, struggling schoolgirl to hypocritical, controlling feminist was frighteningly powerful, even if a little early to develop. The chemistry between them was scintillating, especially as we watched the power dynamic become reversed. Both Sage and Fitzroy-Stone embraced their roles wholeheartedly, and it was evident that a lot of time had been (very well) spent with director Rosa on ensuring that every single line was perfect.
It is the shift of power that makes this play so dramatic. The audience are enraged by the exaggerated claims that Carol makes to the Tenure Committee about John, and her insecurity concerning her background cannot excuse her actions, her self-pity actually further damaging her credibility. Fitzroy-Stone’s portrayal as a man whose composure is crumbling in tandem with his life and his career was tragically moving. The course of his demise was clearly delineated by the play’s three acts, and the climax of the play is as shocking as it is tragic yet cathartic for the audience.
Oleanna is a fantastic example of how dedication, understanding and attention can create a student production worthy of professional acclaim. Proof of its dramatic power can be seen in the hours of debate concerning sexuality, misogyny and educational responsibility that it inspired after last night’s opening performance. It is clear that each and every aspect of this play has been carefully considered, from conception to execution, and to miss it would be a sin for any theatre lovers in York.