Director Lucy Bailey didn’t see David Mamet’s campus drama Oleanna when it was first staged almost 20 years ago, but she remembers the fire and fury it detonated across auditoriums. The 1992 play comprises meetings between a university professor and an aggrieved female student who claims sexual harassment. The student was widely seen to be weaponising political correctness, with some audiences turning mutinous in outrage.
Bailey sat down to read the script last year after being asked to direct a revival at Theatre Royal Bath. She “felt smacked across the face” she says, speaking from her east London home on Zoom. Her strong reaction was not to Carol, the student, but the professor, John. “I had this immediate thought that I wrote down: ‘He keeps jumping into her mouth.’ I felt that this man, who was eloquent and well-equipped, was jumping into the mouth of an ill-equipped, ineloquent young woman and she didn’t have the tools or confidence to fight back.”
Bailey sought to enact their fight in all its gladiatorial drama but also to balance out the power between them. “It’s a strange, awful wrestling match … You do instinctively feel it’s been written on the side of John [but] I wanted to balance out the play. I was compassionate towards him in my first reading but I was deeply compassionate toward her. I could hear Carol’s story, and I think we will respond to her in a different way now. They vilified her then. As women we know that anger.”
There has been a spectrum of responses to the revival, which transfers to the Arts theatre in London this month. An older woman in the audience at Bath reprimanded Carol when she told John: “Don’t call your wife ‘baby’.” The woman shouted out: “And why not?” An argument broke out among those sitting around her. In general, though, Bailey thinks “maybe we are seeing [the play] in a more balanced way now”.
Since Harvey Weinstein’s watershed conviction, we can’t see John (played by Jonathan Slinger in the new production) and Carol (Rosie Sheehy) the way we did then either, Bailey suggests. Her production can be read as a post-#MeToo critique of the invidious yet slippery ways in which male power exerts itself without being easy to call out as inappropriate. “John intends to help his student,” says Bailey, “but in doing so, he starts rubbing away boundaries. In the past 10 years, we have realised just how we had accepted those lack of boundaries. We’re putting them back in place and we have to be careful about that too.”
There is an activist group in the play that helps Carol mobilise a legal case against John. To some degree, we see “the group” from John’s point of view, as an antagonistic force using Carol for its own purposes. Bailey admits she had mixed feelings about it until she and Sheehy discussed the play with a women’s officer at Cambridge University. “We did a Zoom call where Rosie was playing Carol throughout. She talked to the women’s officer about what had happened in the classroom [within the play] and my whole education was turned on its head. The officer was such a brilliant woman and we suddenly saw everything from her perspective – which was completely condemning. Carol grew and grew as she talked to her, realising she wasn’t on her own and that what she had to say was real and right.”
At the same time, Bailey wanted to insert enough nuance and psychological complexity to show that there is no pure victim or aggressor here, but that “the impurity exists on both sides”. Mamet built this complication into the text, she believes. “You think Mamet’s been on John’s side all this time but let’s really look at what’s there: if you scratch the surface then suddenly there’s this overwhelming aggression and a need to obliterate his opponent.”
Bailey is referring to the outbreak of furious violence in the play’s last minutes. The decision to make this aggression explicit wasn’t taken lightly: “At a certain point, the trigger goes and the animal comes out. He doesn’t just want to hurt the other animal, he wants to hurt the woman.”
In the wake of #MeToo, does Bailey think women have made big enough gains in theatre and beyond? “I have felt that the industry is enormously prejudiced in terms of women. I came into it when there were very few other contemporary female directors and when it was so difficult to get an equal platform to men. I do feel optimistic now but it’s got to get to the point where the world becomes 50-50. We’re not at that stage yet but we’re fighting better.”
As well as sexual politics, issues of censorship and freedom of expression are tucked inside the play: Carol demands that John remove his book from the syllabus because the group finds it offensive. Was the current debate about university no-platforming on Bailey’s mind in these sections of the drama? “Absolutely. We discussed it at all points. You feel there’s something slightly terrifying about a decision by a student body to start removing textbooks. It has terrible implications for all of us, and history shows it can only go wrong if we start denying a spectrum of opinion just because one lot of people have decided that opinion is not right.”
Does Bailey have her own views on the so-called cancel culture that overshadows debates on identity today? “I do have an opinion but like a lot of people I feel ill-equipped and a sense of not trusting my own awareness to be able to speak properly. That feels very strange – you feel you’re not able to take part in the debate through a fear of looking like you’re uneducated and insensitive to something – prejudiced without even being aware of it. Which is of course exactly what this play is about.”
Does she think we should talk about it anyway? “You have to keep talking. I like to feel that you can offend and be forgiven. And also that offence can provoke. I don’t mean I want to be offensive in any sense – but you can’t be afraid of that. This is what David Mamet is saying: he’s very provocative and if we get frightened of being provocative then the status quo will suddenly solidify and none of us want to be in a position where we are not able to question it.”
- Oleanna is at the Arts theatre, London, from 21 July to 23 October.
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