(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/13. Photo:  Riveting … Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy in Oleanna by Mamet at Theatre Royal Bath. Photograph: Nobby Clark.)

Theatre Royal Bath
Rosie Sheehy and Jonathan Slinger are captivating in David Mamet’s 1992 two-hander about a university student and professor in a battle of power, privilege and consent

 An anxious university student meets her professor about her grades. It takes place in his room and ends up in a college complaint for his allegedly inappropriate behaviour. He believes he has done no wrong. She feels violated and seeks redress.

David Mamet’s combative two-hander might have reflected the issues and anxieties of the day at its premiere in 1992, but it is startling to see this revival following Harvey Weinstein’s watershed rape conviction. Could Mamet have written a #MeToo play long before #MeToo became a movement?

Not quite, though this brutal and brilliant production, directed by Lucy Bailey, gains new resonance in the light of all that has come to pass and perhaps says things now that Mamet did not mean it to say. There have been many recent powerful stories about sexual abuse and consent, from Cat Person to I May Destroy You. Maybe it is within the framework of these dramas that we hear current issues buzzing beneath the surface of Mamet’s script. (It is somewhat ironic that Mamet has more recently written a post-#MeToo drama, Bitter Wheat, that lacks even a fraction of this play’s complexities.)

The professor’s book-lined study has a desk at one end and a sofa at the other, the latter carrying queasy hints of a campus-style casting couch.

Like Philip Roth’s professor in The Human Stain, who feels aggrieved for his sacking over a single word carrying racial undertones, so Mamet’s professor, John (Jonathan Slinger), believes that Carol (Rosie Sheehy) is weaponising political correctness against him. But as he talks, promising her an “A” in exchange for her company, soothing her when she cries and later, questioning the veracity of her complaint even when it has been upheld by the tenure committee, his micro-aggressions and gaslighting are clear to see, though it is just this vocabulary of terms that John might today want to write off as political correctness.

Slinger plays him with such off-hand entitlement that he appears unaware of his own crimes, apparently enacting nothing more than a fantasy of paternalistic, platonic exchange in his own mind, with the under-confident Carol taking copious notes and becoming confused over his academic terms as he lectures and preens.

Though we are nudged to see his point of view – that she is mistaking avuncularity for sleaziness, taking words out of context, turning the metaphorical into the literal – it is this very reasonableness that contains the modus operandi of a stealth predator.

Sheehy reveals Carol’s powerlessness through her body language, first confused by the disappearing demarcations of the teacher-student dynamic and then subtly recoiling – tucking in her legs, wrapping her arms around herself – as he breaches the space between the desk to create new levels of intimacy.

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