Theatre in Wales

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At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Oleanna , Theatr Clwyd , November 21, 2003
THE insistent ringing of a mobile phone in the auditorium is the curse of modern theatre.

But in David Mamet's tense and emotional two-hander Oleanna he cleverly takes the nuisance value of the mobile ring-tone and inserts it full square into the action of the play itself.

Oleanna is a magnificent play and the two protagonists do it complete justice, gripping the audience so that you could hear a pin drop.

John, played by Gwyn Vaughan Jones, is a brilliant and charismatic university professor on the brink of gaining "tenure" - that holy grail of the US university system that provides job security for life.

On the strength of the tenure offer, he is upgrading a house and seeking out the best private education for his son.

While he fields phone call after phone call about the house sale, a student arrives in his office for an interview about her poor grades and her future.

Carol, played by Catrin Rhys, is confused and angry and a gulf of comprehension yawns between them, fuelled by gender, age, class and power.

Director Emma Lucia has set the play in the smaller Emlyn Williams auditorium at Mold on a circular black stage with the audience in the round, so every expression and gesture can be seen through 360 degrees.

There are just two black chairs and no props apart from the heavy, ever-present briefcases and bags that burden every student and teacher today.

Carol is intellectually lost. She has tried to "do what she is told", taking notes assiduously, reading books from cover to cover, yet she is unable to grasp John's vision of education. Their conversation is scratchy, naturalistic, overlaid by that phone ringing, as John tries to explain how she can change and improve.

But Mamet demonstrates brilliantly how words, phrases and gestures can only be understood in the context and by the tone in which they are delivered.

John's busy life, fielding phone calls, hungrily clock-watching to squeeze in extra tasks, is brought to an abrupt halt as Carol misinterprets and then coldly gathers evidence for a witch-hunt against him that is to destroy not only his material gains but his intellectual and spiritual core as well.

Jones portrays John as a character who believes he can empathise with Carol's plight because of his own kicks against authority in his youth.

He is an intellectual poacher turned gamekeeper, with the imagination to remember what it is like to be on the outside.

But he sees, too, "that we can only interpret the behaviour of others through a screen that we create".

John wields his power like a scalpel rather than a cudgel, but from Carol's point of view it is still a lethal weapon that she, consciously or unconsciously, sets out to wrest from him.

Rhys is edgy and prickly as Carol, quick to take offence, coming from a different place in every way to John, and misinterpreting his kindliness as sexual harassment.

The resulting conflict and switch in the balance of power is authentic, chilling, and tense as the play moves to a shocking conclusion. Fine performances and a pace that climbs steadily to a crescendo make this production unmissable.

On the way out, I heard one woman say to her male partner, "Was he right? Was she right?" It's a question that the play poses but refuses to answer.

Reviewed by: Western Mail

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