The Birmingham Stage Company is the resident company of the Old Rep Theatre. Its patrons are Sir Derek Jacobi and Paul Scofield. The company is unfounded and relies mainly on box office income. Company productions include Speed-The-Plow by David Mamet, The Crucible by Arthur Miller and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. The present production by The Birmingham Stage Company is David Mamet’s “Oleanna”. David Mamet is a contemporary writer well known for his shocking and controversial plays.
While “Oleanna” doesn’t have Mamet’s infamous swearing, it does pack all the other Mamet traits; realistic, “ping pong” dialogue and lots of conflict. There are only two people in the play, John (Neal Foster) and Carol (Sophie Bold). John is a university professor (his subject is not clear, although one would assume he teaches psychology). Carol is his failing student who he offers to talk to and help her understand his subject. Carol’s background is unclear and gets more so as the play progresses. In the first “session” John uses a number of examples to try to get what he is saying across to Carol who is still struggling to understand.
Each time John starts to get somewhere with Carol the telephone rings and interrupts what he is trying to say. That is how act one ends with Carol about to say something which could determine the outcome of the play but is interrupted by the telephone. In act two the relationship between the two characters is totally different to what it was in act one. The act opens with John and Carol in the office again, however the ambience is a lot less relaxed and we soon find out that Carol has lodged a complaint to the university (tenure committee) because she thinks John to be elitist, hypocritical and she accuses him of sexual harassment.
When act three opens John is accused of rape and Carol is trying to get his book banned. When Carol tells John that she is trying to ban his book, this as this is the final straw because she is trying to take away the only thing that he believes in anymore and he ends the play by beating Carol up. All of the action takes place over about month. We don’t actually see the action, more the aftermath of it. “Oleanna” has many themes but the most poignant are sexual harassment, political correctness and power.
John gives an example of his “elitist” attitude when he gives talks about the sexual behaviour of the Rich and poor. He starts by saying, “A college friend once told me that poor people copulate more then rich people do, but rich people take more of their cloths off” Carol interprets this as elitism. Again John displays power when he continuously finishes off Carol’s sentences in the first act. Carol strives for political correctness when she seeks Justice for what John has done. Director John Harrison made the set simple because of the budget and for effect.
He does add one symbolic twist, there is a mock tree in the background and in the first act a rich, golden light is cast upon it; this is in contrast to the atmosphere and how John is feeling. At the beginning of act two the light has changed to a dark green and this again symbolises John’s feelings, the atmosphere and the hostile intentions Carol has for John. In act three the light cast upon the tree is a very dark blue and this symbolises the throbbing hatred John has for Carol. Also the only other lighting in act three was an overhead strip light which gives the feeling of an interrogation room.
Harrison also used a raked stage with a small wharf at the end, which was not raked. The raked sage was used so the audience could see better and the seating arrangement was quite steep which made the audience’s view even better. Another method used by Harrison was to change John’s appearance in each act. In act one John is dressed smartly. He is wearing a suite with a tie and smart shoes. In the second act John appears scruffier with messy hair and he was without his jacket, his tie was loosened and he was also wearing casual shoes. In the third act he was without his tie, his sleeves were rolled up and his hair was a complete mess.
There were differences in Carol’s dress not much in the third scene but in the first scene Carol was wearing a short skirt and a T-shirt. In the second scene Carlo wore a long skirt. This made her look more formal even though it wasn’t particularly formal. Filing cabinet Window with mock tree Computer Exit Carol John Desk with telephone Wharf Harrison didn’t use sound effects to any great lengths. The telephone and the music between acts was the only time sound was used.
Make-up was also not a great feature. It was only used as normal stage make-up. Carol’s destructive attitude seems to be uncalled for. Her character is confusing and purposely written this way by Mamet. In the first act she continuously taking notes and appears to be slow, even dim. In the second and even more so in the third act Carol suddenly comes alive. Is she the same person? Was she just pretending? Or is she the same person but we interpret her differently as we find out more about her? After all this whole play is based on interpretation or misinterpretation. The actress playing Carol was Sophie Bold.
Sophie went to New College, Oxford and studied history. She went on to train at RADA and her first show was with Frinton’s Summer Theatre. She then progressed to The Birmingham Stage Company and played Karen in the national tour of Speed-the-Plow. Sophie’s American accent was strong and convincing. Her main fault was that she over played on Carol’s insecurity when she continuously held her folder to her chest. She also sat with her legs open, which was against Carol’s character. After the play we were lucky enough to be able to ask the cast and director some questions.
One thing which was noticeable about Sophie was that she still held some of character. She was sat on the floor still bringing her hands to her face and chest while answering the audience’s questions. Although the director said that they had not rehearsed the exaggeration of Carol’s body communication the general thought was they had. Although what Carol does to John is a little harsh, John is not blameless. John does dominate Carol when she speaks and he does give erratic examples when he tries to explain to Carol what he is talking about.
He should also never have discussed his private life with Carol. What make John so desperate to help Carol understand is his own experiences with failure. He tells Carol that from a young age he was told that he was a failure so he knows what it feels like. The actor playing John is called Neal Foster. Neal trained at Bristol Old Vic and is very accomplished in theatre. He has been on radio in a number of roles and is an experienced actor. His first appearance for the Birmingham Stage Company was in While the Sun Shines he played Lord Harpenden.
Neal’s American accent is very strong and he didn’t over exaggerate his character’s movements. When he was being questioned at the end of the play he didn’t show any signs of his character. There are many questions that Mamet does not answer and it is up to you to make your own mind up and interpret what is going on because this is the whole point of the play. It is based on interpretation or rather misinterpretation and makes you think. You will end up hating one of the two characters to the brink where you will wish the worst upon them.