Without wanting to sound like a prick, I spend a reasonable amount of my time thinking about, making, and watching theatre. Before seeing Oleanna, I felt like I was pretty good at coming to terms with the moral questions involved, with considering productions at an arm’s length and generally having informed opinions about what I saw.
But then I walked into Corpus Playroom on a hot and sweaty evening. It is no understatement to say that this was by far the most profoundly troubling, fascinating and arresting thing I have seen in Cambridge. It is no surprise to be talking about a show in the evening after seeing it. It is unusual to talk only about that show and then to lie awake at night, still wrestling with it.
The premise is remarkably simple. It follows three meetings of a university Professor (Harry Redding) with his student Carol (Shimali De Silva), and the explosion of gender-, class-, and authority-based issues that arise over a complaint about his behaviour. The pair wage a war of interpretation and implication on one another through a complicated, halting, and dense dialogue impeccably handled by the two actors. The set, with stunning original artwork by Ciaran Walsh, is a set of portraits painted in stark red and black—faces that seem to leer down upon the intense sexual energies below and double the audience’s own voyeurism on this private and fraught space.
The genius of the production and the script lies in my resulting inability to know what moral lessons to draw from what I witnessed. Anna Moody and her team’s direction managed to strike the perfect balance between institutional and individual culpability. Any judgement I made was immediately undercut by something I remembered from before, or a gesture from one of the actors. Credit must also go to the director for the periods of silence; as much meaning could be gained from when De Silva and Redding looked at one another as when they actually said anything. Every moment was perfectly calculated to problematise whatever I thought I understood about the issues that are fundamental to the text.
Aside from the brilliance of the production as a whole, it is also exhilarating on a slightly tangential note to watch these two electric actors hold the stage for the evening. Being in the presence of such talent, I sometimes wanted to smile despite the seriousness of what was happening onstage. We are so lucky to have Harry Redding and Shimali De Silva with us in this university, and I am overjoyed to be able to sit awestruck in front of them for two more years.
I am wary of saying too much more, given that the play benefits from the untainted interpretation of as many people as possible. This play speaks to some of the most important issues facing us in university life, and I would suggest that everyone has a responsibility to think about them in some way. Seeing Oleanna is the best way of doing this. Do your duty, see this play.
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