A young woman comes to a teacher to be tutored for some exams. The premise of Lesson is quite simple, but as this piece comes from the pen of Eugène Ionesco, the master of French absurd theatre, nothing is ever so simple. Max Lewendel’s returning production is smart, absurd, and ultimately chilling.
At its first performance in 1951, Lesson was Ionesco’s first exploration of new experimentation with form and characterization which he also used in later pieces such as Rhinoceros and Exit the king. What do the words mean? How language and communication actually work; The professor has a theory that words are the same in many languages, but have different meanings. The student can add 1 + 1, but not subtract.
Little sense, but we’re guided by some good performances from the cast. Jerome Ngonadi is compelling as a teacher, shifting from charming to something more sinister as he systematically deflates his student. He grows increasingly frustrated that she can only seem to memorize, not “think”; persuasively swinging towards aggression and violence.
Hazel Caulfield is very good as a vulnerable and initially over-eager student. As a teacher dominates and oppresses her, it shrinks and physically disintegrates. His shyness and fear of the professor’s increasingly threatening presence are palpable.
The cast is completed by Julie Starck like the maid whose relationship with the teacher is, essentially, to clean up after him; reason with him and challenge him.
The public must suspend logic and reason, like Ionesco creates a world where numbers and words become stripped of their meaning. However, his messages about fascism, power and politics are not dated: we all remember very good and very bad teachers equally. Enthusiastic and lively children who do not fit within the confines of the educational system can be easily stalked and intimidated.
The teacher challenges his student more and more, but also sinks into intimidation and interrogation. As an older man in a position of power who bullies and threatens his young pupil, the modern parallels are clear. It’s a sobering message, but it’s a shame that the momentum of the script lagged in the middle of the play and the dark comedy of the script wasn’t exploited more.
The production design is incredibly attractive, cleverly utilizing new creative captioning technology that makes every performance accessible to deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Christopher Hone’s decor turns every piece of furniture into a blackboard where the script is both projected and written. This creates a real sense of momentum and interest in the piece.
Like an absurd play Lesson won’t appeal to everyone, but Lewendel’s production is both intriguing and smartly executed.
The lesson is at the Southwark Playhouse until July 23
Photo credit: Ikin Yum