Theatre Tours International @ Queens Theatre (The Big Room)
3:00pm, Sat 14 Mar 2009
I first learned about David Mamet’s Oleanna when David & Margaret reviewed the 1994 movie adaptation. On the strength of their précis, I chucked the movie on my “To See” list… a list that has only ever grown over time, despite my declining inclination towards modern cinematic fare.
So I was quite pleased to see that Guy Masterson – a chap for whom I’ve got the utmost respect – was helping stage a production of Oleanna this year… and a matinee, no less! Masterson, of course, plays the university professor John, the kind of friendly professor we all probably encountered, kind and well meaning. Joanne Hartstone is Carol, the young female student who initially consults John regarding concerns over her grading. The interactions between the two escalate, resulting in a much more acidic second act, where John attempts a reconciliation of sorts in response to Carol’s accusation of impropriety – his career hangs in the balance, nerves are frayed, and desperation dances with open hostility towards a brutally battering finale.
Mamet intended Oleanna to incite debate, and it’s deliberately divisive. I found it very interesting to read the effect of Carol’s casting on audience response; and, certainly, in this instance I found myself siding with John for most of the performance. In fact, my mostly illegible notes from this performance are punctuated with the clearly defined phrase “what a right fucking bitch!” However, I think that’s mostly down to the empathy I carried towards Guy walking into the theatre, coupled with the fact that John is played with noticeable restraint. The quiet power imparted in the role was so subtle I didn’t even notice it; I was genuinely shocked when Carol made her accusations, laying out her facts.
The problem is that I just couldn’t believe Joanne Hartstone as Carol. Despite the deeply liberal sensibilities espoused (“don’t call your wife ‘Baby’!”) that would normally endear me to a character, she was unable to convince me in her early, meek phase, and – even at her most focussed and fiery best – couldn’t fill the room with her rage. And that may have been a problem with the venue… even though the audience would’ve maybe been at two-thirds capacity, the room was simply too big – Carol was unable to project into the space.
And that’s a shame, really, because Mamet’s Oleanna is a great piece of writing. And, while Masterson performs one side of the bill with aplomb, his cohort was unable to match him.