Reviewed – 27th September 2018
“The dialogue, in the hands of the accomplished trio of actors, is music (sometimes thrillingly discordant) to the ears throughout”
Written in 1950, Eugene Ionesco’s “The Lesson” has lost none of its strangeness, nor its resonance. It exemplifies what has been coined ‘Theatre of the absurd’ of which Ionesco is master. A powerful three hander it beats to the palpitating rhythm of a macabre merry-go-round upon which the archetypal characters of the Professor, the Pupil and the Maid are fated to ride.
The Maid is busy mopping the floor of the Professor’s study as the audience take their seats. A seemingly innocuous pre-show. For those familiar with the play, I don’t need to state its significance; and for those unfamiliar, I won’t. So let the lesson begin. The Maid fussily withdraws having ushered in the new Pupil. It gets off to a smooth start but it’s not long before the Professor becomes increasingly frustrated with his protégé’s inability to grasp the rudiments of mathematics. Roger Alborough wastes no time establishing his stage presence with a performance that is chillingly playful. But playful in the way a predator teases with its prey.
Sheetal Kapoor is quite extraordinary as the Pupil, transforming from compliant, naïve schoolgirl into a shattered marionette. As her enthusiasm for the lesson deteriorates her toothache increases; clearly a metaphor for her psychological pain. In fact, the whole play is a metaphor, a cautionary tale for today, further exemplified by Joan Potter’s Maid who repeatedly has to clean up the mess. Potter makes the sinister aspects of this play quite palpable with an understated performance pitched with just the right amount of irony. Yes, it’s gruesome but, hey, it’s absurd so it’s okay to laugh.
Donald Watson’s translation is further heightened under Matthew Parker’s slick direction. The dialogue, in the hands of the accomplished trio of actors, is music (sometimes thrillingly discordant) to the ears throughout. Repeated banalities, unshackled illogicality and non sequiturs all compete for air time. Comedy and violence, absurdity and disturbance, mystery and fear all go hand in hand; so the audience’s reactions are varied. While some are laughing, others are recoiling in horror.
The experience is sharpened by the confines of the space. Encased in the round, neither the actors nor the audience have room to escape, and there’s even less room for a fourth wall. Although the cast never address the audience directly we are drawn into the impossible dialogue: there is no barrier between us and them, between reality and fantasy, which intensifies the unnerving quality of the writing. Simon Arrowsmith’s filmic sound design adds the final layer; a gossamer cloak of atmosphere that fits the action perfectly.
Gripping through to the final scene in which the absurdity pours over the action like blood from a knife wound, “The Lesson” has something to teach us all. And this production at the Hope Theatre is, without a doubt, a high-grade lesson in theatre making.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by LH Photography
Hope Theatre until 13th October
Previously reviewed at The Hope: