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British actor David Suchet

Oleanna | 1993


“It has split not just audiences, but the cast of the play. In a pre-first night interview, Suchet and Williams, who play lecturer and student, were interrupted by an angry Pinter when they showed their sympathies too clearly. 'No way is that rape,' Suchet said. 'On the simplest level, she's lying and she's on her way to getting him destroyed.' Williams countered: 'Her accusation is absolutely, 100 per cent, legitimate.'”

— David Lister for The Independent, “Oleanna: Provocative drama divides sexes”, 1993

 

Dates and places

Opened at the Royal Court Theatre, London on June 24, 1993 and then moved to the Duke of York's Theatre, London on September 15, 1993

Creative

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Harold Pinter
Designer: Eileen Diss
Lighting: Gerry Jenkinson

Cast

David Suchet as John
Lia Williams as Carol

About the play

“Oleanna” is a two-character play by David Mamet, about the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual exploitation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being accorded tenure. The play’s title, taken from a folk song, refers to a 19th-century escapist vision of utopia. This was later adapted to a movie with the same name by Mamet.

Awards

For his performance as John in this play, David Suchet was nominated for The Laurence Olivier Awards (1994) and won the Variety Club Award as Best Actor.

David Suchet and Lia Williams | image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

About the playwright

David Alan Mamet is an American playwright, essayist, screenwriter and film director. Best known as a playwright, Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize and received the Tony nomination for “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1984). As a screenwriter, he received the Academy Award nomination for “The Verdict” (1982) and “Wag the Dog” (1997). Mamet’s books include: “The Old Religion” (1997), “Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy” (2004); “The Wicked Son” (2006), a study of Jewish self-hatred and antisemitism; and “Bambi vs. Godzilla”, a commentary on the movie business.

Harold Pinter, the director, about “Oleanna”:

“There can be no tougher or more unflinching play than Oleanna. The original ending is, brilliantly, ’the last twist of the knife’. She gets up from the floor (’Don’t worry about me. I’m alright’) and goes straight for the throat. The last line seems to me the perfect summation of the play. It’s dramatic ice.” — Harold Pinter, letter to David Mame, personal archive, www.haroldpinter.org, 26 April 1993

“The first night when David Suchet beat [Lia Williams] up, the men in the audience really gave her a rough time, and cheered. She wasn’t expecting it [...] I had to say to her, it’s not you. The only thing you can do is stand up for yourself and say I’m above all this, as the character does. She’s indomitable, whether you like her or not. She can say, you are beaten me up, I’m hurt, but nevertheless you’re going to make this statement. When that happens in our last five minutes, the audience is absolutely silent. Lia has really triumphed too. It’s not very pleasant being detested on stage, to find the audience antagonsitic.” — Harold Pinter to Mel Gussow, “Conversations with Harold Pinter”, London: Nick Hern, 1994

Pinter has recalled the first night at the Royal Court Theatre in England in 1993: “the audience applauded. I was pretty shocked. So was the actress who was under the table at the time. When she came out she was crying. She was so shocked at what had happened. The audience thought she was crying because she had been beaten up but she was shocked by the venom, coming from men and women. In fact the leading man’s [David Suchet] family were there and in the dressing room afterwards his mother said, I’m so glad you beat her up. She had it coming to her.” — Harold Pinter to Christopher Bigsby, “The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Pinter did not think the play was a polemic, but a sense of strain can be detected in his discussion of how he approached the play, in which he found “the skein of sexual tension that seems to exist between father and daughters [...] The three of us, David Suchet, Lia Williams and me, have tried so hard to avoid hysteria... We have tried to find the wholeness of this girl.” — “Pinter: My Plays, My Polemics, My Pad” by Steve Grant, London: Independent, 1993

What press had to say... about David Suchet (as John in “Oleanna”):

“David Suchet captured wonderfully the paradoxes and ambiguity of John; his surface generosity and concern could not entirely mask an underlying unctuousness and condescension that were deeply disturbing.” — Hersh Zeifman, “Oleanna in London”, York University, Toronto, 12 October 1993

“Lia Williams does not wear spectacles and allows her long hair to fall sensuously below her shoulders. David Suchet adds a leavening of vanity to John, a thin smile, an ineradicable air of smugness about his book and his son and his career. This restores equilibrium to the drama.” — Michael Coveney for Observer, 4 July 1993

“Suchet is perfect as the pompous professor put upon by his blonde student.” — William Cook, “Oleanna”,  Mail on Sunday, 1993

David Suchet and Lia Williams | image by http://www.photostage.co.uk

What press and books had to say... about the production:

“This is some feat, because one of the many problems with Oleanna is that John quite plainly is guilty, first of offering Carol an A grade that her work does not merit, and second of assault at the end of the play; and in the words of David Suchet, who played John in Harold Pinter’s London production, he is "arrogant, pompous, self-obsessed, in love with the sound of his own voice, always coming back to himself when discussing someone else’s problems and never listening.’ — Charles Spencer, “Bittersweet Battle of the Sexes”, Daily Telegraph, 15 September 1993

“There is a smugness and a coldness about Suchet’s performance that repels sympathy, a hint that he might indeed be sexually interested in Carol. Meanwhile, Lia Williams suggests just how comforting it must be for a confused and lonely girl to seize on the glib certainties of the politically correct, and her body language visibly grows in confidence as the play progresses. The final explosion of violence has a terrifying, bruising intensity that instantly silenced the applause from some of the more blokeish chaps in the audience.” — Charles Spencer , “Provocative View of an Epic Power Struggle”, Daily Telegraph, 2 July 1993

“The danger with the play is that it can easily seem a partial, loaded, one-sided attack on the student and on female solidarity in general. But Pinter’s production scrupulously avoids that trap by giving equal weight to both sides of the argument. It is clear from his staging that the professor not only dominates the student intellectually but it physically drawn to her. But it is equally clear, from the way she sits astride his desk in the second act that she is terrifyingly conscious of her new-found authority. By restoring Mamet’s original ending, in which the professor is forced to confess his failings, Pinter also brings out the pain and tragedy of the situation.” — Michael Billington for The Guardian, 1 July 1993

“Pinter inserted many lengthy pauses and silences that often served less to give emphasis to the words than to show the characters struggling over their meaning. A subtle example came when Carol asked the busy professor why he would stay with her, and then, on being told that he likes her, asked for an explanation. There was an unscripted pause during which Suchet’s face registered a man searching for a reason, before he replied, ‘Perhaps we’re similar’ . It is an example of the way Pinter shifted the interest of the play away from thematic considerations and towards an examination of how, as Mamet had put it many years previously, ‘the language we use, its rhythm, actually determines the way we behave, more than the other way around.’” — Steven Price, “On directing Mamet” from the book “The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 2004

“Not a word in this quietly spoken production is redundant. It is ideal material for Pinter to direct: always disturbing, frequently menacing, but only at the end breaking into violence. Pinter’s control is immaculate.” — Malcolm Rutherford for The Financial Times, 2 July 1993

“Reading the printed text, you feel, or at least a complacent male like myself feels, that Mamet has painted his play in black and white [...] In Pinter’s brilliantly controlled production, in which every line is made to count and the tension is screwed up like a ratchet, the piece seems more subtle.” — Charles Spencer , “Provocative View of an Epic Power Struggle”, Daily Telegraph, 2 July 1993

“The British are more restrained, generally avoiding muggings in the back stalls; but more people must have come out into Sloane Square arguing than at any time since Look Back In Anger. Luke Rittner, former secretary general of the Arts Council, said: ’It’s a long time since I’ve seen people in an auditorium virtually fighting with one another at the end.’” — David Lister, “Oleanna: Provocative drama divides sexes”, The Independent, 1993

David Suchet and Lia Williams | image by http://www.photostage.co.uk


“Other highlights for me in the theatre I would say include Oleanna — the European premiere of David Mamet’s play at the Royal Court and the Duke of York’s — it was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to be part of that event, especially at that stage in my career.”

— David Suchet, “20 Questions With…David Suchet”, Whatsonstage.com, 2005

 

 

 

Review:
Oleanna: Provocative drama divides sexes
— David Lister // The Independent, 1993

 

Review:
Oleanna in London
— Hersh Zeifman // York University, Toronto, 1993

 

 

 


“At one point he tells me how, seven years ago, when he was in David Mamet’s controversial play Oleanna, the cast would hold meet-the-audience sessions at the Royal Court Theatre on Saturday afternoons. “This very genteel older Chelsea lady came to meet us and she stood up and said [he mimics a graceful, high, upper-class female voice], `I have spent all of my life doing the right thing and behaving as a moral and upstanding woman . . . and then, Mr Suchet, I came to see this play and at the end I wanted to stand up and shout, Kill the f---ing bitch!’ And then she sat down and everyone burst out laughing.””

— David Suchet for Lucy Cavendish, “The labour of being Hercule”, The Sunday Telegraph, 2001

 

 

 

For more information about David Mamet's play and Pinter's production read books:

The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet
by Christopher Bigsby, 2004

David Mamet: A Research and Production Sourcebook
by Janice and David K. Sauer, 2003

Conversations with Pinter
by Mel Gussow, 1996

 

 

 

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© 2012. Design by Daria Pichugina
© 2001—2014. Texts by Daria Pichugina, Adelka
© 2001—2014. Translated by Adelka, Kim Dolce, Elena Ukhina et al.

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