More than anything else, Oleanna reveals itself as a clear product of passion. Not just passion for David Mamet’s script or characters – but a need on the part of the creatives to make some kind of statement or impact on Australia’s trends of violence against women.
The play itself is an uncomfortably honest portrayal of escalation, misunderstanding, privilege, aggression and confrontation between a young woman and her university professor. The production opens on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The White Ribbon Foundation is listed as a key production partner.
In an open audience discussion after the work, both of the work’s key creatives openly discussed their own history with violence against women. Performer/producer Heather Maltman claims to have wanted to stage a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna for somewhere in the region of a decade – ever since encountering it in a particularly polarising university experience.
Now, to be clear, whether a work is or is not about an important issue will always be ultimately irrelevant as to its eventual quality as an audience experience. But, tonight’s performance’s origins as a product of passion help to communicate one of the defining experiences of seeing the actual work. It feels vital. There is an urgency and desperation throughout the production. It is alive.
There is definite technique and artistry within the work. Firstly, there’s Mamet’s script. One of his best, Oleanna’s script is an incredibly focused piece that nevertheless manages to dissect the interrelationship of countless different issues within society. In addition to the obvious psychology of violence and gender, there are explorations of class, knowledge, ambition and language.
And, it grounds all of these explorations within character. There are few better plays to demonstrate the axiom that the personal is political (and vice versa). The two characters within the play don’t serve as proxies or metaphors for points of argument. They’re richly sketched individuals with flaws and good intentions. Through their interactions, they reveal politics within our lives.
Beyond the script; Oleanna features a pair of strong performers and bold, ambitious direction. Jerry Retford does exceptional work as well-intentioned (but oblivious) professor John. Heather Maltman plays student Carol with an array of nuances and levels – taking her character’s emotions on unexpected turns when she could easily have steered into the superficial reading of a scene.
(A final act pivot from aggressor to empath is, in particular, just a beautiful movement that lends great shading to her character’s psychology.)
The decision to stage the entire production within an actual university lecture theatre, meanwhile, is inspired. Even if it doesn’t go quite so far as to make the audience actually feel complicit, it underlines the veracity of Mamet’s writing and the genuine presence of these kind of toxic interactions within Australian society.
But, while these acts of technical and creative prowess elevate one’s enjoyment of the work, it’s ultimately driven by that intense passion and commitment on the part of the creatives. It is a work of expression and honesty. Even when things go off the rails (from technical difficulties to flubbed lines), that electricity and authenticity keeps the work alive.
There are, for example, several ways in which the work could be improved. While Mailman’s performance is rich, there are moments where she seems to struggle drawing the through-line between Carol’s moments of vulnerability and her moments of assertion. Retford’s performance in the play’s key moment of physical violence doesn’t feel completely connected to what precedes it.
Even in the staging; while producing the work within a lecture theatre is inspired, the decision to have the actors occasionally perform or lecture directly to the audience actually seems to have the opposite effect from what the creatives desire – rather than feeling like a complicit voyeur who should act, the audience is reminded of the limits of the fourth wall.
But, again, these potential shortcomings ultimately melt into the milieu of the production’s passion. It is rough. It is unhinged. Props break. Lines are forgotten. Doors don’t behave as they should. The audience shuffles uncomfortably between acts. The work feels lived-in and genuine and necessary. It is a snapshot of artists trying to scream over the background noise.
The Maltman Lab presents
by David Mamet
Directed by Jerry Retford
Venue: Colombo House | UNSW, Gate 5 High Street Kensington NSW
Dates: 25 – 27 Nov 2016
Tickets: $40 – $65 (a portion of sales will be donated to White Ribbon)