Review: Oleanna (Sydney Theatre School / Actors Not Feelers)

Oleanna 4 MEDVenue: Sydney Theatre School (Chippendale NSW), Jun 25 – Jul 6, 2014
Writer: David Mamet
Director: Jerome Pride
Cast: Grace O’Connell, Jerome Pride

Theatre review
David Mamet’s script is powerful, complex and intellectual. It is an anarchic work about anarchy. It makes its point by shattering conventional paradigms of discourse, and uses theatre to discuss politics in a way that would be challenging for any audience. There are many ways that texts can be interpreted, but Mamet’s Oleanna is resilient, with a message that is unyielding. There might be room for some ambivalence in the plot, but what it wishes to say is clear. Anyone taking it on must capitulate to its structure in order for the characters to make sense, and for dramatics to take effect, or risk a show that is unconvincing and nonsensical.

Jerome Pride’s direction handles the play’s concepts carefully. Reverence is paid to the writing, and the results are manifestly impressive. Controversial and sophisticated ideas are expressed with surprising clarity. Daring propositions avoid the curse of sounding like highfalutin abstraction, and are made credible and real. Both actors enthrall with interesting and dimensioned portrayals. The pace and tone of dialogue are perfectly tuned, so that we are gripped from beginning to end. Design elements however, are neglected. There is no need for very much embellishment but the set and costumes are overly basic. The actors’ work would benefit with a more defined sense of space, especially with the cast’s eagerness for movement.

John is played by Pride, who invests in his role, an appealing coupling of impulsiveness and thoughtfulness. We can see him thinking, but we also feel the instinctual timing that he trusts to rely on. The story’s characters are flawed, and we need to be repulsed by them as much as we relate to them but Pride’s creation is endearing, which poses a problem for the production. Perhaps better wardrobe choices could play a part in helping to create a less affable impression.

John’s adversary is Carol, whose development over the course of the play is startling. Grace O’Connell’s performance is not entirely convincing. Some of her creative choices lack authenticity, and we come away slightly confused with the character’s evolution. Nevertheless, O’Connell comes to life after the first act. Her energy and conviction is spellbinding. There is a lot to enjoy in this actor’s work, which is robust yet heavily nuanced.

Mamet’s story gives us important and difficult questions, but it is debatable whether answers are to be found therein. Oleanna deals with the injustices in our lives. It talks about systematic oppression and victimhood, but more significantly it talks about the prospect of dismantling those systems and imagines its alternative. The show’s title refers to a failed utopian state. We always want something better, and in some cases, we know exactly what needs to be improved but the question must always be asked about how we get there. Removing the status quo requires a replacement, but it is human nature that seduces and shapes every new status quo into tomorrow’s conundrum.