Every language is facts, it's only a matter of speaking it…
I prepared for The Lesson by learning nothing about Eugene Ionesco, I knew this play was going to be different and how important it is to the Hope’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker, but I didn’t want to cheat, I wanted to experience it all freshly cut. I wasn’t disappointed – even in my ignorance, my preconception was that this would be another piece of dynamic, jarring, theatre – and it surpassed my lazy assumptions by slicing through the fourth wall and imbedding itself in my mind even after a long working afternoon spent discussing data…
The play’s classroom turns out to be more like a torture chamber than anything else and it wrongfooted the audience who didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp; the main thing they had in common was an open mouth. Some were obviously familiar with the play and the style, but others were reacting with fresh-faced glee and/or horror.
I’ve never seen a funnier play about indoctrination, miss-communication and fascism but that’s damning The Lesson with faint praise. It’s a furiously-complex piece that operates on many levels all at the same time - all of them in your face.
Now I’ve read up on Ionesco and I understand that he wrote this in Post-War France for a first production 1951 and it has been in continuous performance ever since… it really is a play for today that shows just how quickly discourse turns sour and fatal decisions made based on ideas that suit rather than anything else.
It begins with a Maid (Joan Potter) cleaning up the classroom of a Professor (Roger Alborough). The doorbell rings and a new Pupil arrives for her lesson (Sheetal Kapoor) with the Professor. The atmosphere is strange and yet here we have a perfectly ordinary scenario; a classroom, an exchange of knowledge what could be safer? What could be more normal?
In this World mademoiselle, one can never be sure of anything…
The Professor comes into the room and starts to assess his eager new pupil who seems as bright as a button! It’s absurdist with her answers to simple questions pleasing him no end as we sit thinking of course 1 + 1 equals 2… but we’re being set up and so skilfully as well. What we think we see is only a pretext for a deeper discourse on the nature of mutual understanding.
So, when the Pupil suddenly wrong-foots expectations by not being able to subtract 3 from 4 we have to readjust expectations and try to work out new rules for this game.
We struggle to see the logic – how can she not subtract? The Pupil seems only capable of learning through wrote; she has memorised the answers to billions of calculations without being able to work them out for herself… that’s brilliant but it’s also disturbing: what kind of society doesn’t allow for the imagination to deviate through creative processing?
The Pupil starts to get tooth ache – a manifestation of the shadow discourse twisting violently in the room. The Maid returns warning the Professor to avoid other subjects, appalled when he suggests philology: “the worst of all!”.
|Toothache no barrier to learning...|
Pronunciation is itself, worth an entire dialect!
The tension between Pupil and Professor mounts along with the violence of his language and we look on in dread – what started off as highly formalised politeness has descended into something far more serious and theatrically wonderful!
This is another stunner from The Hope and I swear its playroom morphs like a Tardis in certain productions: I always remember the space differently based on the play. That’s down to ace direction from Artistic Director Matthew Parker along with sound design, lighting and set layout – take a bow Simon Arrowsmith, Chris McDonnell and Rachael Ryan who has the walls covered in chalked calculations; as if we’re the blackboard!
The performers grew larger than life in front of us as audience reality was distorted by the sheer intensity of Roger Alborough’s Professor as his madness proved malleable and self-normalising: we’ve seen so much of that recently haven’t we?
Sheetal Kapoor was the perfect pupil, polite and vulnerable in her conviction that learning would be the all she needed to do. Joan Potter’s cleaner was also relatable as she enabled, acquiesced and kept calm and carried on…
IThankYou Rating: ***** 2+3 equals 5 as does 7-2 and 19+33. This small space above busy Highbury is transformed into a darkly magically-real else-world… The Man in the Upper Street Hope and Anchor.
The Lesson plays until 13th October and tickets can be obtained from the Hope Box Office on and online.