British theatre seems strangely prone to staging talky American exports looking at racism and privilege in their education system (see also: ‘Admissions’, ‘White Guy on the Bus’). But the play Eleanor Burgess’s ‘The Niceties’ most strongly recalls – so strongly I’m unsure as to whether it’s a deliberate riff – is David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’, in which a militant young feminist student destroys an entitled male tutor. Here, an African American student, Zoe, exposes the unconscious bias, or out-and-out racism, of Janine, her professor at an Ivy League university.
‘Oleanna’ was so viciously tipped towards the bloke’s favour, it incited fury. While ‘The Niceties’ is unlikely to have anyone booing, I felt like Matthew Iliffe’s production also weighs the dice too heavily against Zoe.
Big name Janie Dee as Janine is a little supercilious, sure, but she’s also warm, all smiles, full of genuine compliments and support for her student. She’s excited by Zoe’s essay – which argues that ‘a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery’– and her suggestions for improvements (more original research; more expertise) seem in good faith, rather than dismissive. She is no innocent – she has some very blinkered views; she makes tone-deaf comments, and as her privilege is threatened, nastiness oozes out. But she’s also often presented here as a voice of reason – and ultimately the victim. Dee was sure-footed on these emotional shifts, if wobbly on her actual lines, on press night.
But Moronkẹ Akinola, while making an impressively controlled and confident debut, seems directed to play Zoe as cold and calculating. The character lacks empathy; although many of her arguments are politically sound and crisply articulated, it’s hard to feel for her as she vengefully destroys someone else’s career, and that makes the drama feel one-sided.
Burgess’s generational battle also leans in to some really boring, lazy assumptions about millennials (it’s set at the end of Obama’s time in office). Zoe is privileged, and entitled; over-sensitive, and utterly humourless. Although powerfully committed to activism, her resistance to changing her essays or, you know, reading a book looks like arrogant laziness. Burgess throws in lines about pronouns and trigger warnings – and rather than unpack why these matter to students today, it feels like shorthand for what an unreasonable young person she is, stoking audience antipathy.
Burgess does include diamond-sharp dissections of arguments around academic neglect of minority voices, the burden of history, and how those with power need to give it up. But her plot is glaringly predictable, and the action just two people circling each other (at times, rather awkwardly) in an office.
‘The Niceties’ is, perhaps, more open to interpretation than it seems: reviews of a New York production insisted it was unfairly weighted in favour of Zoe, which is fascinating. I wonder if Iliffe (young, white) intended for it to feel more equal? But given the way being woke has become a joke to many middle-aged, middle-class audiences, I’d be surprised if many read this production of ‘The Niceties’ as even-handed. ‘Oleanna’, but make it about race? No thanks.