An anxious university student meets her professor about her grades. It takes place in his room and ends up in a college complaint for his allegedly inappropriate behaviour. He believes he has done no wrong. She feels violated and seeks redress.
David Mamet’s combative two-hander might have reflected the issues and anxieties of the day at its premiere in 1992, but it is startling to see this revival following Harvey Weinstein’s watershed rape conviction. Could Mamet have written a #MeToo play long before #MeToo became a movement?
Not quite, though this brutal and brilliant production, directed by Lucy Bailey, gains new resonance in the light of all that has come to pass and perhaps says things now that Mamet did not mean it to say. There have been many recent powerful stories about sexual abuse and consent, from Cat Person to I May Destroy You. Maybe it is within the framework of these dramas that we hear current issues buzzing beneath the surface of Mamet’s script. (It is somewhat ironic that Mamet has more recently written a post-#MeToo drama, Bitter Wheat, that lacks even a fraction of this play’s complexities.)
The professor’s book-lined study has a desk at one end and a sofa at the other, the latter carrying queasy hints of a campus-style casting couch.
Like Philip Roth’s professor in The Human Stain, who feels aggrieved for his sacking over a single word carrying racial undertones, so Mamet’s professor, John (Jonathan Slinger), believes that Carol (Rosie Sheehy) is weaponising political correctness against him. But as he talks, promising her an “A” in exchange for her company, soothing her when she cries and later, questioning the veracity of her complaint even when it has been upheld by the tenure committee, his micro-aggressions and gaslighting are clear to see, though it is just this vocabulary of terms that John might today want to write off as political correctness.
Slinger plays him with such off-hand entitlement that he appears unaware of his own crimes, apparently enacting nothing more than a fantasy of paternalistic, platonic exchange in his own mind, with the under-confident Carol taking copious notes and becoming confused over his academic terms as he lectures and preens.
Though we are nudged to see his point of view – that she is mistaking avuncularity for sleaziness, taking words out of context, turning the metaphorical into the literal – it is this very reasonableness that contains the modus operandi of a stealth predator.
Sheehy reveals Carol’s powerlessness through her body language, first confused by the disappearing demarcations of the teacher-student dynamic and then subtly recoiling – tucking in her legs, wrapping her arms around herself – as he breaches the space between the desk to create new levels of intimacy.
Once the complaint has been made, Mamet dramatises all that John has to lose; the effects of his behaviour on Carol’s life are not touched on. Instead, we see the posture of Sheehy’s character change, grow taller and more eloquent as her anger against him is mobilised by her wider “group” in class. Mamet complicates her anger through their ideological debates around pedagogy and elitism: she has struggled to get to college but the professor believes “not everyone has a right to education”, and expounds heterodoxies that she regards as dangerous.
You want to ban my book, he says to her, when she shows him a list of demands that include books to be taken off the syllabus. This aspect of the drama also gains new resonances in the light of cancel culture and the rise of university no platforming.
Because this is a Mamet play and preoccupied by a muscular kind of power, the two characters engage in a Nietzschean battle for supremacy, with Carol bearing her own tyranny over him in the last of the three acts. The linguistic battles turn into a Darwinian one and the appalling outbreak of violence in the final minutes is still shocking, even if you know what’s coming.
His job, John told Carol earlier, was to provoke, and he could be speaking for Mamet. This is theatre at its most riveting, sensationally performed by its actors, filled with intellectual complexity alongside visceral anger, and gaining greater meaning over time.