'The Lesson' Review: ★★★★

Performance Review

A radical departure from the original script, and one meant to ask some interesting questions of its source material.

Florence Singer

It’s unusual to leave a play feeling like you’ve just had a particularly vile supervision. But this is what Eugene Ionesco, the Romanian-French absurdist playwright, conceives in his one-act drama The Lesson. The play sets a simple premise, with a three-person cast enacting a deeply troubling meeting between a Professor and his young new Student, while the Professor’s Maid can do nothing but watch as the power dynamic between them unravels into violence.

With a content warnings notice as long as my arm, I expected to be confronted with everything The Lesson had to throw at me, living up to the promise that ‘no-one leaves this play unscathed’. What I didn’t expect was to be confronted with it twice.

Under Flo Winkley’s directorial reinterpretation of the script, the material has been split into two halves, and the audience is immediately confronted by a question: ‘who would you like to see playing the role of The Professor tonight?’ Although slightly misleading (both actors play both roles in turn; the audience just decides who goes first), this question and what then entails is a radical departure from the original script, and one meant to ask some interesting questions of its source material:

‘What struck us when reading the script was the horrifyingly cyclical nature of the piece: the play's beginning and end are virtually identical. […] We wanted to think about what happens when the pupil becomes the professor and transitions into this pattern of behaviour.’ (Flo Winkley, Director)

The night I attended, Coco Wheeler was the first to take on the role of Professor. After watching the lesson spiral out of control, from a timid first meeting to assault and murder after the student fails to comprehend the Professor’s twisted philology lesson on the word ‘knife’, the scene is reset. As Mark Jones took up the mantle of Professor (a stand-out performance), an identically ill-fated arithmetic lesson brought the play to its inevitable conclusion for the second time. Watching the dynamic relationship between Wheeler and Jones unfold was fascinating and certainly dug up a lot of gendered questions about how we perceive the abuse of power in different settings, but the nature of repeating the scene did necessarily leave some lags in the pacing of the performance as a whole.

As the leading roles interchange, the maid, Marie (Dominika Wiatrowska) is the only constant figure, transitioning from eerie to a relatable presence as the audience becomes more aware that what they are witnessing is a pattern of behaviour:

‘We were fascinated by the prospect of showing the knife sequence more than once, so that the audience enter into the knowledge of the maid: they know exactly what is to come, down to the precise lines.’ (Flo Winkley, Director)

Indeed, at the repeated mention of Philology as ‘the most dangerous of all’ lessons in the second iteration of the scene, the audience is immediately on high alert for violence, heeding the Maid’s distress in a new light, as the Professor once again asks her to fetch him his knives.

The Lightfoot Room in St John’s Old Divinity School was a fitting setting for this uncanny play, performed along the space’s central axis with rows of audience members sitting on either side. The action mainly takes place across a long central table, which the actors intermittently chase each other around. However, in perhaps a slight oversight, the climactic moments generally took place on the floor at the far ends of the room, making it difficult for some of the audience to engage properly without full visibility. The excellent lighting and sound choices certainly made up for any staging oversights – the low lighting rig made for severe shadows and an uncomfortably exposing involvement for the viewer, and Wiatrowska’s recurrent piano playing was a suitably chilling and well-thought-out accompaniment, effectively elevating moments of tension.

The new premise with which this production of The Lesson sets out is certainly interesting and mostly well executed, even if the philological and arithmetic repetition did have me momentarily siding with the exasperated (homicidal) Professor. Overall, this was a superb production that can only be admired for its intellectual vigour and inventiveness. 4 stars.


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