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Radio review: Oleanna, Siddhartha, and Beyond Belief

23 February 2024

BBC

David Mamet’s Oleanna was dramatised on radio for the first time (Radio 3, Sunday)

David Mamet’s Oleanna was dramatised on radio for the first time (Radio 3, Sunday)

IT WAS one of the few times that I’ve seen grown men whoop and applaud in the theatre: that moment in David Mamet’s Oleanna when the verbal aggression turns physical, and the college lecturer John takes a swing at his tormentor, Carol. Back in the 1990s, it was the play that brought otherwise mild-mannered academics to blows and nailed the cult of “political correctness” and the cruel puritanism of progressive cultural politics.

It is surprising to hear, in the promotional blurb for Drama on 3’s production of the play (Radio 3, Sunday), that this is its first airing on radio. A two-hander with tight, claustrophobic dialogue, Oleanna seems an ideal script for the medium; and, for once, the cliché of being “as relevant today as ever” is entirely justified. The punishment meted out to Paul for his pompous narcissism might now entail cancellation as well as loss of tenure, but the charges laid at his door are familiar to anybody who must pick their way through what Mamet regards as the battlefield of higher education: sexism, racism, and elitism.

Encountering the play again, and with only words to convey its shifting power dynamics, one is struck by the clipped, halting dialogue from which one must deduce what exactly John’s academic discipline is, and what he has been attempting to teach in his lectures. In this respect, one feels a great deal of sympathy for Carol, who has paid for a college education in a subject neither she nor we can grasp, and the validity of which John himself smugly undermines. While his characters struggle for control over the mechanisms by which knowledge is disseminated, Mamet casts doubt on the intrinsic value of the knowledge itself.

The search for knowledge of a more profound kind is the theme of Hermann Hesse’s ponderous novel Siddhartha, loosely and inventively adapted by Hattie Naylor for Drama (Radio 4, Sunday). This fable of a Brahmin in search of Enlightenment lacks conflict, jeopardy, or intrigue, and yet manages to captivate, through its delicate changes of pace and sophisticated production. We hear barely a raised voice or a cross word, but continue to listen.

In Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week), the topic was religious humour, and there to entertain us were a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew — which, had they all gone into a bar, might have occasioned its own meta-gag. The number of actual gags told was disappointingly low, perhaps because professional comedians are not going to give them away for free. And it’s tough, walking the line between playful joshing and mockery.

Spare a thought, though, for the Jewish comedian Rachel Creeger, who is painfully aware that, in every Jewish family, there is always at least one person who is at least as funny as she is.

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