Eugene Ionesco’s iconic play The Lesson – as part of the 1950s French playwrights’ movement “theatre of the absurd” – has been re-imagined by director Audrey Guo and theatre company Verse Unbound to explore the political relationship between the powerful and the powerless in modern day China or at least that’s what I thought before I saw the play. Watching as the intensity and dialogue got turned up a notch, the stage became a blur with many questions hanging in the air much like the multi-coloured test tubes hanging from The Drayton Arms Theatre, where the play was performed.
The audience sat around Frances Jialu Chen’s small stage which was outlined by fish wires; a member of the production team had to remind audiences to be wary of them. The stage was minimal with simple props: a dried out carpet floor; two chairs; and a writing board. Floating test tubes attached to the ceiling were also a curiosity yet it was difficult to truly understand what they represented in The Lesson’s narrative and China’s political situation.
Ionesco’s play observes the interactions of a professor (Toby Osmond) and a pupil (Kelly Blaze) during a lesson. The professor’s maid (Roslyn Hill) enters the stage to warn them of the subjects he chooses to teach, shouting out “philology is the worst!”, yet despite her red flags he ignores her and continues his lesson. It begins calmly, civilised and almost democratically until the professor turns on the pupil. Wound up by her ignorance he becomes dictatorial, aggressive and orders her to be “silent” and in a psychotic rage murders her for no logical reason but that she kept on interrupting him by saying she had a “toothache”.
Moving from arithmetic to philology, Osmond was tenacious as the professor and showed sheds of adaptability in portraying a once charming professor converting into a deranged monstrous murderer as well as a feeble, guilt-driven man. Utterly dedicated to his role, he held onto every word of Ionesco’s intelligent script.
Blaze was also a breath of fresh air. From the moment her character stepped on stage, she was immediately likeable and easy to sympathise with. Though her character was unable to subtract basic numbers, which was mildly irritating, her responses back at Osmond gave a warm and fuzzy feeling; it was a reminder of how difficult teaching new concepts can be, especially to a young pupil. Moreover her portrayal of physical pain, that had developed throughout her body, was also convincing and played a major part in creating an unsettling and disturbing atmosphere for the theatre.
Yet what about China? Where were the echoes of China’s social political environment envisioned by director Guo and three other theatre practitioners from Unbound Verse? Perhaps they were everywhere on the dramatic stage yet I couldn’t see them. It could have been a timeless metaphor of practically any political situation in history, such as North Korea or Soviet Russia, and audiences would not have ascertained the difference. For the performances alone, however, the cast deserved credit for talented acting but conceptually the stage was fraught with many unanswered questions unfortunately. After the show, I found myself trying to decode and articulate what I had just seen which isn’t usually a good sign either.
Review by Mary Nguyen
22nd September until 26th September 2015
Audrey Guo and Verse Unbound are uniting to present Eugene Ionesco’s absurd story about a young, vibrant lady and her increasingly perverse lessons with an erudite old professor and his trustworthy maid.
Re-imagined as a timeless metaphor for today’s political environment, exploring relationship between the Power and the Powerless, This Lesson gives an eccentric and thrilling experience filled with dark sense of humour, the ending is something for you to guess.
The Lesson is directed, designed and produced by 4 female theatre practitioners from China, all of whom have lived, studied and worked extensively under both the Eastern Socialism and the Western Capitalism. Using the work of Eugène Ionesco, they apply their perspectives and experiences from both ideologies to this absurd story, and using their field of theatre expertise, they wish to explore the stage potential of expressing the essence of politics in one classroom.
Verse Unbound is a London-based art management company that produces theatre with an absurd element. Xinyi Shen is the founder and managing director of Verse Unbound, who is dedicated to bringing quality productions and theatrical projects to artists, academic institutions and art companies from both UK and Chinese theatre industries. For more information about current international theatrical projects please visit: www.verseunbound.com
Cast: Roslyn Hill, Kelly Blaze and Toby Osmond
Writer: Eugene Ionesco
Director: Audrey Guo
Designer: Frances Jialu Chen
Lighting Designer: Tan Hua
The Drayton Arms Theatre
Monday 28th September 2015