first night


Grace Cheatle faces a moral dilemma at Empty Shop.

Oleanna by David Mamet is a highly compelling play charting the power struggle between a university academic and his female student who, at first coming to him for help, launches an accusation into sexual harassment and prevents his being awarded tenure. Such tension and a rather delicate subject matter are easy to miscarry but are dealt with competently by both director and cast. As the performance unfolds it becomes clear that neither shy away from the moments of conflict and psychological distress which are prevalent in the play.

Walking into the transformed Empty Shop, I found myself in a surrounding all too familiar. With all the trappings of a university professor's office, the set of Fountains Theatre Company's production has an eerie quality of the commonplace. The small space allows a real intimacy between audience and actor and, in a play so claustrophobic as this, such an atmosphere is vital.

The audience are immediately thrown into the pacey dialogue and the initially dismissive, assertive energy of John (David Myers) grabs attention from the off. Daisy Cummins as Carol appears at first as a very vulnerable and frightened student whose hunched body language and wide-eyed expression undoubtedly evokes elements of pity. Of course, Mamet does not allow his characters to remain this straightforward; as events unfold, the two characters become markedly different, mirroring the other's former attitude. The righteous and egotistical face of John is stripped away leaving him a shaking, pleading, unstable wreck by the third act. The downward emotional spiral which John finds himself plunging into is made almost palpable by the quivering gestures of Myers, contrasting wonderfully with the self-assured meticulousness of the opening scene.

I did, however, struggle to follow the inner workings of Carol. The switch from vulnerability to aggression was somewhat sudden and I was never able to quite figure out her motivation for her destructive allegation. Cummins played Carol's anger with a marvellously measured tone, her rage suppressed yet bubbling beneath the surface, though sometimes there was an element of petulance to her tone; it was infrequent, but would fleetingly take away from the malice which her maturity complemented fantastically. Cummin's played Carol with great conviction and the relationship between her and her tutor was fascinating to watch, but perhaps further delving into the psychology of the character could have increased the emotional complexity even further, allowing a motivation more apparent.

As the production progressed, however, I found myself increasingly distracted by the music of Sondre Bryntesen. Starting off as a soundscape, it proved itself effective in giving a hint to the world which carried on outside the stifling office interior, and the low reverberations which underlay the first act allowed a sense of the unsettling to infiltrate the play. It was as this subtle audio developed into discordant strings and jarring half-melodies that the music drew attention, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Though I can't pass comment on the composition itself, its placement in this production was one which detracted from a tension which was being so well created by the battling Cummins and Myers.

The closing moments of the final act were some of the most alarming I have seen in Durham Student Theatre. The abrupt and violent climax of the play was handled with great dexterity by both actors, never slipping into melodrama, and left the audience in utter silence – a huge compliment to both cast and crew.

Having been presented with a marble upon entering Empty Shop and told to drop it into the jar  labelled with the character's name that we perceived to be the victim was a hugely original idea from director Chris Blois-Brooke. The audience become implicit to an extent to the actions they witness and it truly makes you think. In all honestly, the power of Oleanna meant I struggled to place my marble in either.
Grace Cheatle

7 December 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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