>OLEANNA by The SIngapore Repertory Theatre

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 24 aug 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


The themes and ideas evoked in OLEANNA can be effectively summarised in Jacques Lacan's musings on our postmodern condition - we exist in a world plagued by "a crisis of human subjectivity."

Written by American playwright David Mamet, OLEANNA portrays, without being too reductionistic, a power-play between the two protagonists, John and Carol. Carol, played by Michelle Chong, is a confused, befuddled and morosely upset college student who approaches her Professor of Liberal Arts, John, played by Lim Kay Siu, for assistance with her failing mid-term grade (not to mention her lack of competence) in his discipline. Like most accomplished academics, the Professor fails to comprehend her problems, constantly re-directing them to his own experiences of failure and achievement, dolled in eloquent rhetoric and impenetrable elocution. Miscommunication and subjective interpretations then lead to John facing charges of sexual harassment stemming from his attempts to assist her.

In the tradition of many modern playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Mamet's plays are noted for their simplicity in staging and minimalism of form counterpointed by strong male characters and highly-charged dialogue sequences and verbal confrontations. They are further sprinkled with elements of contemporary cultural and critical theory embedded within the verbal action that essentially centres the narrative. In OLEANNA, power, on which director Goh Boon Teck has chosen to focus, becomes the pivotal concern from which other issues such as the effectiveness of pedagogy and feminist ideology take root.

>>'A provocative play that opens up many questions for one to muse over, especially for we who often remain unconscious of the workings of patriarchy in social systems including language and pedagogy'

The mention of power would then call to mind 'power-theorist' Michel Foucault who postulates that power is a discourse that exists prior to institutions and social relations - it belongs to no one yet is used by everyone. Knowledge is power and it is this which John readily employs to 'subdue' his student. Claiming power by being a dissenter from the education system which breeds an emphasis on grades as the measure of success, John tries to remind Carol that the purpose of a college education is the love for learning. Ironically, he succumbs to the discourse of academia and frustrates a somewhat bewildered Carol who chooses to note down phrases in abstract and later concocts a new narrative of her encounters with the professor to the school's disciplinary board.

The power balance is shifted, through the use of a three-act structure, from the beginning to the end. In the final act, it is Carol who, through an unanticipated eloquence, lectures the professor now standing accused of being a megalomaniac that preys on the ignorant and unenlightened, demonstrating that power belongs to the one who controls the discourse of speech.

As much as Mamet attempts to portray varying gendered perspectives, the characterisation of Carol seems to be subversively scornful of feminists and feminism alike. Carol is portrayed as an incompetent, slow-witted and insecure student who is unable to comprehend virtually anything her professor says and chooses to quote in abstract, weaving a completely different story thereafter. In addition, Lim Kay Siu's excellent and commendable portrayal of John overshadows a less impressive Michelle Chong who pales in comparison thereby slanting our preferences toward the masculine perspective. As much as the third act attempts to persuade us of Carol's difficulties through her emotional laments, Mamet seems to be gesturing that the only power a woman can have lies in her sexuality - a potent force no doubt, one that destroys the professor's life.

Sustained only by two opposing protagonists, the play deliberately omits a possible moderating figure and opens that space of interpretation to the audience who is then compelled to ask (and answer) the questions: Did John 'sexually harass' Carol with his seemingly sexist and derogatory remarks or was Carol misinterpreting his intentions and re-interpreting them in the light of her own insecurities? What constitutes sexual harassment or rape? The responses will, perhaps, always be divided by a thin red line viewed through the opposing prisms of gender … much like the way this review has been tainted with gendered subjectivity.

Professionally staged and directed, OLEANA is then a provocative play that opens up many questions for one to muse over, especially for we who often remain unconscious of the workings of patriarchy in social systems including language and pedagogy.