The Lesson (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: July 2, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Skin Yum

Writer: Eugène Ionesco

Director: Max Lewendel


Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco became a darling of the French avant-garde movement in the 1950s and some of his absurdist comedies, most notably Rhinoceros, were also celebrated on this side of the Channel. The Lesson is a short one-act play dating from 1953, but what, if anything, can we learn from it today?

The big challenge for director Max Lewendel is to give the kiss of life to a dated piece which many could regard as already moribund. Using a translation by Donald Watson, he starts promisingly with a trio of excellent performances. Jerome Ngonadi is the bombastic and increasingly tyrannical Professor, charged with tutoring his 40th student of the day. Hazel Caulfield is the bouncy, over-enthusiastic Pupil who aims to sit for her doctorate in three weeks’ time and begins by struggling to learn how to count from one to ten. 

Julie Stark, playing a cross between a housekeeper and a dominatrix, interrupts the lesson from time to time with pleas for the Professor to keep his actions under control. As the Professor fails to heed the warnings and the Pupil develops a raging toothache, the lesson moves from mathematics to languages and a tussle for power develops, edging ever closer to mortal combat. 

Set designer Christopher Hone comes up with a traditional study with fittings which open out to reveal an array of blackboards. Ben Glover is credited for video design and creative captioning, using the blackboards to display imaginative graphics at all stages of the production and also, for the benefit of the hearing impaired, the play’s text. There is no shortage of invention in Lewendel’s energetic revival, but all of it combined is not enough to cover up the fact that long stretches in the middle of the play are almost unbearably turgid.

Ways of interpreting Ionesco’s intent could include seeing the play as a satire on the rigidity of formal learning, or as a dire warning against the perils of fascism. However, it may be best not to look too deeply for hidden meanings and simply accept it as an absurd load of nonsense, possibly as the writer meant it to be. Neither particularly educational nor enough fun, sitting through The Lesson most resembles serving out 80 minutes as a punishment in after school detention.

Performance date: 1 July 2022

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