Review: Oleanna [Jagriti, Bangalore]

Posted on Jun 19th, 2017 by Shuchi in Reviews, English, Jagriti

Oleanna Jagriti ProductionI walked in to watch Oleanna at Jagriti, Bangalore knowing little about the script – which was just as well. The surprise and slow-mounting tension of this play is probably more powerful without prior familiarity. [If you haven’t watched the play yet, I’d say watch and then return to read further.]

The play opens in a book-lined study, two actors on stage: a pompous, high-strung male professor and a dishevelled, timid-looking female student. The student is worried about her low grades and that the professor’s book she’s reading as part of the course does not make sense to her. The professor treats her in an offhand, condescending way – with a Hugh Grantish stutter and barely-restrained impatience, he sometimes expresses empathy, sometimes snaps. The student takes it all in a consistently cowering way, writing notes throughout. The professor has two threads of conversations going on – one with the student, the other on the desk phone (1992 play, no texting to fall back on) that regularly interrupts and reveals – to the student as well as to the audience – details of the professor’s life outside the scene.

Their dialogue is replete with halting sentences running into each other, cutting each other off. It feels raw and real, as if we are eavesdropping on an actual conversation. After a while of this, I thought – okay, fine acting on display with interesting back-and-forth about higher education, but what is the point of it all? The material seemed too meh to justify its existence as a full-length play.

And then we find that the initial blandness was a setup.

What follows after intermission puts an entirely different spin on what has transpired on stage so far. Those notes become ominous. The language of the characters – both verbal and non-verbal – transforms.

Oleanna is an effective paradigm…er, model…for the philosophy "you see what you are". Words and gestures can be perceived in vastly different ways, more so when filtered through the prism of power divide. The play makes you think about the delicate line between friendliness and sexual harassment, and the politics of power. Was the professor blameless, thoughtless, or wilfully guilty? Was the student reading it all wrong, taking too harsh a stance for small misdeeds, or totally right? Would the story have progressed differently if her tearful confession in Act One had not been cut short, or if she had not joined the mysterious "Group" which seems to be masterminding the later proceedings? Is the demand for book-banning a rational one as punishment for harassment? The play does not spell these details out, nor does it take sides. There is no character to root for – both the professor and the student are pretty unlikeable people. The professor is so peevish that even his "I love you" to the wife sounds like "the price of scrap metal has gone up". The student changes from mousy to monstrous; neither avatar does her favours – her gloating over the professor’s predicament is positively distasteful.

The student has a meaty Seeta aur Geeta-style role to play, though the double here is the same person with two temperaments. The actor gives quite a performance – breakdown scene, sneers and eyerolls, closing line – all well done.

Oleanna is not a pleasant play. It is tense and claustrophobic. The entire action happens in a stifling room: quitting this room is never easy. Act One ends with an exit abrupt and mistimed – a character about to tell a secret has to pause and leave (we never learn what the secret was). In Act Two, a character wants to quit but is forcibly stopped. In Act Three, a character is asked to leave the room, the request is contemptuously ignored.

The small, intimate space of Jagriti theatre adds to the aura of the play. It might not have worked as well on a larger stage.

I came out the theatre discomforted – and that’s a compliment.

Why is it called Oleanna?

One of the big questions on my mind during the play was: who is Oleanna? The student is Carol. The wife is Grace. Why then is the play titled Oleanna?

I looked it up online, and now learn that:

The play’s title, taken from a folk song, refers to a 19th-century escapist vision of utopia.

…which doesn’t help much. How does an "escapist vision of utopia" connect with the content of this play?

Here’s some analysis from the blog How Books Got Their Titles: Oleanna by David Mamet.

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Article by Shuchi

Shuchi lives in Bangalore, adores theatre and hangs out a lot at the Ranga Shankara cafe.
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