Oleanna first came to the stage in 1992 in the United States and 1993 in the UK. At the time, high profile sexual harassment cases had captured the attention of the US audience in particular, and heightened sensitivities meant that the play – which explores the shifting power dynamic between a female university student and her male professor – was received as controversial. Nearly 30 years later, although our senses are maybe somewhat dulled to some of the nuances within the piece, we’re still having the same conversations and realising the full extent to which sexism in all its guises, male privilege and abuse of power have shaped and determined the world around us.
We meet John and his student Carol in John’s perfectly angular, book lined office. The set is incredibly pleasing to the eye, with attention to detail such as several copies of John’s book on display on a shelf giving a subtle nod to the type of man John is. Carol is frustrated and upset about her lack of progress in John’s class, and they enter into a discussion where John shares his own memories and frustrations, seemingly in solidarity but clearly missing the difference between their two experiences. Jonathan Slinger’s portrayal of John is smooth, yet overfamiliar, bordering on creepy, while Rosie Sheehy as Carol is terse and angry. While one is fluid the other is rigid, yet throughout the play as the dynamic shifts we see Carol grow in dominance, occupying more space on stage and asserting herself as a confident woman while John’s composure slips and he begins to unravel. I found Sheehy’s portrayal of Carol slightly confusing, although as her motivations become clearer so too do her actions.
Across the three acts your perception of who is right or wrong is constantly shifting and stretched; neither character is especially sympathetic yet each at times deserves understanding. As all of the action plays out in John’s office, your interpretation is your own; was he too close to her, what did he mean when he said he “likes” her, is she just overly hostile? It’s so reminiscent of current culture, with the #metoo movement and in the wake of several other high profile sexual harassment trials that it could have been written yesterday and were it not for the old-style PC on John’s desk and the punctuation of calls taken on a landline rather than a mobile, it could have been set in 2021.
I didn’t find Oleanna an easy watch – the subject matter is challenging and plays out uncomfortably between the two characters. It is however thought provoking, excellently executed and accessible to a wide audience – definitely one to catch if you can. Playing until 23rd October 2021 https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/events/oleanna
Reviewer: Zoë Meeres
Reviewed: 29th July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★