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Icarus Theatre presents The Lesson by Eugène Ionesco

Having premiered in February 1951, some elements of this absurdist play are, perhaps frighteningly, recognisable and relatable decades later. The Professor (Jerome Ngonadi) is incredibly forceful with his Pupil (Hazel Caulfield), and the only character with an ‘actual’ name, Marie, the Maid (Julie Stark) has a cold indifference towards the Pupil, while chiding the Professor for his actions. The actions in question seem relatively benign at the time, though the Maid can see what’s really going on, noticing trends from previous interactions with other pupils. But not all is revealed at once – that would be far too handy – and those, like yours truly, seeing the show for the first time, can find themselves quite impressed by how it all comes together in the end.

Julie Stark, Jerome Ngonadi. Photographer Ikin Yum.
Julie Stark, Jerome Ngonadi. Photographer Ikin Yum.

That said, it has (without giving it all away) quite a dark ending, and steeped in symbolism. This production seems to suggest a link between authoritarianism in the classroom and absolute power in politics: the show makes a specific reference, as does Cabaret and The Sound of Music, to the Third Reich, which through contemporary lenses can come across as somewhat lazy, if only because so many things are likened to Nazism these days, very few of which, realistically, constitute death and destruction on that scale.

Much of the content of ‘the lesson’ itself is rather inconsequential – and, I’m sorry to report, tedious by way of its contradictory nature. For instance, the Professor teaches arithmetic by rote but then suggests the Pupil is incorrect to rely on her memory to make mathematical calculations. Perhaps this is the play’s way of making light of the way in which subjects are sometimes taught in schools, and/or perhaps I am reading too much into a show that is supposed to be enjoyed because of its absurdity, rather than in spite of it.

This production is committed to inclusivity (despite taking place entirely in a presumably expensive private tutoring session), through ‘creative captioning’, a new term (at least to me). In non-creative captioning, if I can call it that, the captions are not linear, appearing on a screen separate from the stage action. Here, the captions are incorporated into the set design – which in this case means the script appears on various blackboards. This is, after all, a classroom setting. But one need not flick between looking at a screen and looking at the stage, and this is something to be welcomed and embraced. Ironically, for a show partly about getting things right, albeit for educational purposes, there were slight imperfections in caption spelling – make of that what you will.

The actors themselves are quite brilliant: Ngonadi’s Professor is always earnest, even as he becomes increasingly deranged. Caulfield’s Pupil, meanwhile, is a prime example of someone brimming with optimism and hope, only to have both systematically destroyed by the play’s events. It still happens in schools – rather than encourage and channel positive energy appropriately, pupils are more often than not simply told to sit down and shut up. It is a rather damning indictment that an absurdist show from the Fifties has relevance today.

Still, it could do with some trimming down, even from its ninety-minute running time. The sheer repetitiveness in places was unnecessary, and somewhat took away from what were convincing performances from a hardworking cast.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

‘In this world of ours, Mademoiselle, one can never be sure of anything.’
A mild-mannered professor takes on a new pupil, and swiftly descends into tyranny, becoming bent on her destruction; a comically surreal exposé about power, knowledge and those who hoard both.

All performances are enhanced by a bold projection design that features an exciting new Creative Captioning technology, supported by Arts Council England, ensuring that every performance is accessible for deaf and hard of hearing audiences as well as enhancing the creative story.

Creative Team
Director Max Lewendel
Senior Producer Dylan Frankland
Producer Isabelle Hayden
Producer Ciara Wynne
Set Designer Christopher Hone
Costume Designer Isabella Van Braeckel
Sound Designer Matt Downing
Lighting Designer Stevie Carty
Projection Designer Ben Glover
Assistant Director Romane Cayez

Cast
Hazel Caulfield
Jerome Ngonadi
Julie Stark

ICARUS THEATRE PRESENTS
THE LESSON
BY EUGÈNE IONESCO
29 JUN – 23 JUL 2022
https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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