Monday, 25 January 2016

Oleanna - Fringe World 2016 (24 January 2016)

One of the interesting aspects of the burgeoning Fringe World Festival is the number of unusual venues pressed into service to accommodate 700 shows. This one aptly titled The Hidden Bar was nestled in a Tapas restaurant on Aberdeen Street. 

A temporary stage constructed of four blocks had been erected at one end of the bar. Narrow rows of seats extended along the bar back towards the entrance. The relatively small stage space was perfect for this two-hander written by the celebrated playwright David Mamet. The setting was a professor’s office as John (Andrew O’Connell) meets with one of his students Carol (Rosalba Verrucci) who is struggling to comprehend his class. 

Normally Carol is portrayed as a young woman and this heightens the sexual tension between older professor and female student. In an intriguing reversal, here Carol is the older of the two which changes that dynamic. The play has three razor sharp defined acts in what amounts to a struggle for control between two characters of seemingly mismatched standing. Status and power become a contested battleground in the context of a bastion of higher education and gender politics.

The first act sees John in the ascendancy; the second rocks that assumption as everything we saw is turned on its head as Carol makes accusations regarding his behaviour; while the third puts Carol in the driver’s seat with a brutal punctuation point of a conclusion. The stakes are ratcheted up as John wants to secure tenure at the University which will bring status, monetary reward and the ability to buy a new house with his wife. All of these trappings of privilege come under direct threat as his attempts to control the situation only make matters worse.

The drama is heightened because you could argue that both characters are right and both are wrong in their entrenched positions. How you perceive the validity or ‘justice’ of what transpires may depend entirely on your own perceptions and moral framework. That makes for deliciously compelling drama and, no doubt, the potential for animated debate long after the show ends.

The acting is very strong here in trying circumstances. The 3pm show was conducted in sweltering conditions – kudos to both actors for literally keeping their cool. This is a Mamet play so not only does it feature huge swathes of tricky dialogue, it demands that the actors overlap lines as they verbally joust. This can be very awkward when there are pauses and hesitation but O’Connell and Verrucci riff off each other very well. I also enjoyed the subtle changes in body language as John’s superiority is diminished and Carol becomes more assertive. The play ends on a surprisingly brutal note that is extremely well executed.

As I was watching the first act unfold it felt like an intellectual exercise that was flirting with overstaying its welcome. But when the shift comes it does so with economical brevity that propels this into compelling territory indeed. The strength of the writing and delivery is that I could empathise with both ‘sides’ so was torn as this played out. No small feat in what were trying conditions for the audience as well as the actors. This is a fascinating and deftly constructed battle between two opposing and combustible viewpoints that is well acted and staged with the climax actually rocking the stage such was its force. 

Oleanna is written by David Mamet, directed by Robert Jeffreys, and stars Rosalba Verrucci and Andrew O’Connell. It is on at The Hidden Bar in Northbridge until 21 February.

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