Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Day 152: David, Cate, Michael, Harold, David, Geoffrey, Lia & Pollyanna

In 1993, I was lucky enough to see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the two-hander, Oleanna, a play by David Mamet (pic right). It’s an incendiary piece and this version - directed by Michael Gow, featuring Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush - was nothing less.

Three months later, I was back in the UK for Christmas when friends of mine (a married couple) suggested heading into the West End for a matinee show, a couple of days after Boxing Day. They left the choice up to me, which wasn’t really much of a choice as it was a Thursday and there wasn’t too much to be had (Wednesday being the favoured day for afternoon performances then). However, my eye did light upon the very same play - Oleanna - only this time, it was a production by the Royal Court Theatre, that had transfered to the Duke of York’s in St. Martin’s Lane.

I warned my friends, that this piece has the potential to polarise the sexes; there’s every chance that you could walk into a performance of this play a loving couple and exit via different doors, never to speak to each other again. They assured me that I need have no fear of this in their case, and that they were “up for it”.

I was keen to go, as this production was directed by Harold Pinter (pic left) and starred David Suchet (most popularly known for incarnating Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercules Poirot) and Lia Williams, who had been voted the ‘Most Promising Newcomer‘ of 1992.

We weren’t the only theatre-seeking punters scratching their heads to find a matinee on that festive season Thursday, as many out-of-town Americans - who I’m guessing knew very little about the play - and sales-shopping couples in town, seemed to rhyme Oleanna with Pollyanna and snapped up tickets for what they thought was a musical. I could see this shaping up to be an explosive afternoon in the theatre; the play’s subject matter, combined with the manly auras of Harold Pinter and David Mamet, an unprepared audience (looking for a "happy ending")....I’d be watching this one, crouching behind the seat in front of me.

Here’s a ‘twenty-five words or less‘ that I’ve read on the play: “He said it was a lesson. She said it was sexual harassment. Whichever side you take, you’re wrong.” Oleanna is about a college professor (John) who is confronted by a female student (Carol), who is failing his course. Following lengthy conversations and debate between the two, Carol accuses him of sexual exploitation, causing a disastrous professional and personal fallout in his life. The second half of the play builds and builds with pain, agony and misunderstanding until a climactic moment where John lashes out at Carol.

In the performance I saw in Sydney, John (played by Geoffrey Rush) slapped Cate Blanchett’s Carol, once. In London, in Pinter’s version, David Suchet’s John, uncontrollably beat and kicked Lia Williams’s Carol until she was cowering under the desk that had separated them; at which point, many in the audience clapped and cheered (not just men).

I have the published transcript of the play (Methuen) at my elbow, as I write this and only need dip into the very pithy last three pages to be transported right back to that December afternoon, seventeen years ago, and the confused and mixed emotions that rose up in me then, just as they do now. I must add that my friends are still happily together.

Day #152 Tip: Don’t tell them what to do
David Mamet and Harold Pinter are both giants of the theatre and the screen in terms of writing. They are both renowned for their paucity, nay scarcity, of big print or stage directions.

In the 80 pages of the play that is Oleanna, there is not one guiding direction or suggestion as to what emotions or feelings are appropriate to either character; all he writes in are ‘pauses’ and physical actions that the character performs. Sometimes there is the italicised line or the CAPITALISED word or two, but by and large, Mamet leaves interpretation up to folks like Cate Blanchett, Geofrrey Rush, David Suchet, Lia Williams and their respective directors. So would I.

Are we so open-ended and open-minded to interpretation in film screenplay? Should we be?

For me, it works like this: I must carefully and painstakingly construct lines of text and subtext, within moments of drama, that build and become beats of escalating conflict, which, scene by scene “turn” and “progress”, to build Acts where values change to create the sweeping arc of a story and film that creates meaning. If I’ve been thorough in my crafting of that blueprint, then the requisite emotions WILL flow (in the hands of great actors and a great director) as a consequence.

Am I the one being all Pollyanna now?

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