An unnamed young woman, the Pupil (Hazel Caulfield) rings a doorbell and waits to be let inside for an appointment with an also unnamed Professor (Jerome Ngonadi). Granted entry by the Maid (Julie Stark) whose dourness does not diminish the Pupil’s bubbly eagerness, she is thrilled by the study, examining books and the cabinets while waiting for the Professor to arrive. With an infectious grin and boundless enthusiasm, she lays out her books and papers and waits.
When the Professor arrives, he judges the Pupil as worthy of his time and attention. They begin with arithmetic, she speeds through the addition questions he asks. She bounces with joy as she gets his questions right, but it soon transpires that she cannot subtract but has made it to this point through memorisation rather than understanding. Unable to make headway, the Professor moves from arithmetic to languages, and it is here that we move fully into the realm of Eugène Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd script.
Per the Professor, words sound the same in many different languages but have, possibly, different meanings, so there are stretches where the same word is repeated over and over in an attempt to get it right. We hear Spanish, Neo-Spanish and half a dozen other languages besides. There is some tedium here and it is, presumably, a deliberate decision of the production. The lessons the professor gives, counting over and over, repeating over and over – by the nature of this production, we the audience have to sit through them too… over and over.
The performances are superb. Ngonadi appearing increasingly demented and despotic. He is convinced he is right, that his is the only way and woe betide anyone who disagrees. Caulfield’s bright optimism first turns to bewilderment, then she is suffocated, almost totally beaten down and only managing to snarl back on occasion.
Max Lewendel‘s direction and staging is thoroughly excellent, smart and innovative. The show is designed to play each evening with creative captioning to make each performance accessible. The script is projected onto backgrounds as characters speak. It becomes part of the show, with pictures and animations for footsteps down the stairs, music playing or being disrupted. As the set changes and everything, including the floor, becomes a chalkboard for the Professor to write on, words move and expand to encompass all of these boards. The deceptively simple set transforms into something greater and this collaboration between Christopher Hone’s design, Ben Glover’s projections, Matt Downing’s sound and Stevie Carty’s sound is truly spectacular.
I would have liked this one-act play to be shorter and less tedious, but I think that could be missing the point. This cast and creative team have done a good job with their adaptation of this play from almost 70 years ago. It is going to split audiences, The Lesson certainly won’t be for everyone, but Icarus Theatre Collective have done well by Ionesco.
Written by: Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Donald Watson
Director: Max Lewendel
Set Designer: Christopher Hone
Costume Designer: Isabella Van Braeckel
Sound Designer: Matt Downing
Lighting Designer: Stevie Carty
Projection Designer: Ben Glover
The Lesson plays at Southwark Playhouse until 23 July 2022 Further information and bookings can be found here