The Librarian’s Cellar: At the Theatre: Oleanna…a tale of oppression?

I went along to see Company D’s production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a provocative play that examines the system of higher education from the point of view of two characters, the university professor and the student, and the context of two human beings, existing in polar opposite life situations. It is a study of power, and in the context of a drama, how that power can shift with disastrous consequences.

Directed by Ruth Calder-Potts, the professor, John, played by David Scott, is socially, emotionally, and academically on a different plain to the student, Carol, played by Sinead O’Riordan. Despite all his good intentions as he attempts to teach Carol to learn for herself, John speaks out from the top of his ivory tower to Carol, albeit between the distractions of his chaotic personal life, and with an air of patronization that he is probably not even aware of.

Carol, on the receiving end of a plethora of language and academia that she is finding difficult to absorb, is asking for help; is looking for the answers that she can apply to her life, her experience and her difficult journey through life-long learning.

This simmering mix becomes a clash between two individuals with very different abilities to absorb and decode information that is coming at them from the other, which spirals into an intriguing study of not only how two human beings can grow to perceive one another, but also how they interpret the actions of each other. And how, once wronged by the other, can adopt with conviction their negative interpretations of the other’s behaviour, with explosive results.

It is a play that will leave you travelling home with your own internal discourse playing out. Was John right? Was Carol? Could they both be completely correct in their convictions, or could they both have got it so very wrong? And if so, why?

Any situation where one person exploits another or hinders their pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. This is the view of Paulo Freire, 1921-1997, a critical theorist of education, who is also quoted as saying that “such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity.”

In the play, Carol reacts in her frustration in a manner that while shocking, may help to explain Freire’s viewpoint. We don’t know her past, but we get a sense of it; that is one of ongoing struggle…

From the moment we are born,  we all follow similar paths, arriving helpless, unable to care for ourselves, yet quickly and instinctively learning from whom we will be nourished and nurtured; where the food comes from, the protection, the caring of us, body and soul. If we are lucky, that nurturing will be a positive experience that will allow us to flourish, firstly as children with confidence, enquiring minds and a thirst for answers that we will seek and find. And secondly, as well-adjusted adults, ready for the challenges of our lives that continue our path of learning; ideally through our own methods of critical reflection, praxis and transformation.

But what if our journey is not the ideal? What if the circumstances of our existence result in an upbringing of carelessness, apathy, cruelty or violence that hinders development. Perhaps denying access to knowledge and the skills of autonomy and therefore, becoming one of oppression and disempowerment?

How might that manifest in any of us, if faced with a situation such as Carol’s…?

Company D’s production of Oleanna at the Teacher’s Club, Parnell Square West, came to an end last night. However,  I have no doubt that based on the spellbinding performances of Sinead O’Riordan and David Scott, the play will be back…so keep a look out and when the curtain rises again on this wonderful production, go see it!

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