From the start of Oleanna the battle lines were drawn, with the two protagonists facing each other down across a desk. This divided the stage in two, making the occasional forays that the actors made across this divide all the more tension-filled.
After all, Oleanna is a play of tensions. Written in 1991 by David Mamet, it focuses on the relationship and conflict between John, a professor (Max FitzRoy-Stone), and Carol, his student (Saffia Sage). It isn’t a light play, but an attempt to create conversations and stimulate debate. As an intelligent play, it challenges audiences, and set in a university, these challenges are especially intriguing to an audience of students.
The staging continued along this intellectually stimulating line, with the books on the bookshelves picked with precision. I loved the inclusion of Thomas Paine gazing down from the cover of The Rights of Man over the set. The margins of the stage were littered with stained and torn pieces of paper. Whilst this was dramatic and cleverly suggested ivory tower academia being torn down – important in the second half of the play – it did seem out of place as the audience entered, and perhaps provoked more confusion than dramatic impact.
After that atmospheric opening, the first act quickly warmed up, with passionate acting sparking across the stage. I did feel that perhaps it came too quickly, and the original outbursts could have been more controlled to emphasise the impact of the second half. But it was powerful, and the sexual tension between John and Carol was intelligently there and yet not there. Whilst their physical contact seemed almost paternal, John appeared to be subtly and yet physically aroused throughout, which, although awkward and disturbing to watch, was sort of the point.
The opening of the second act was perhaps too similar to the beginning; by the Drama Barn’s usual standards I was expecting something more inventive as I re-entered the building. However, it swelled magnificently, with solid acting and stagecraft shining through to the end. By far the stronger half, the transformations in both characters were managed with skill, and the ending was simply incredible. Whilst undoubtedly helped by the script, the performances took on a life of their own and I was absolutely captivated. What especially impressed me was such force coming out of a two person play, where so much pressure must necessarily be placed on each actor. That the audience were hooked until the last second was testament to the acting of both Max FitzRoy-Stone and Saffia Sage.
Oleanna worked in the small space of the Drama Barn. The closeness forced the audience to engage with the characters and was well optimised by skilful staging. I had some gripes with the fringes of the stage being superfluously scattered with paper, but this was a production that provoked debate, as it was supposed to, and most of all screamed competence and ability. Perhaps not the play to see for fun, but if you want to have a serious, engaging conversation this weekend, the Drama Barn is the place to go.