Southwark Playhouse, London – until 23 July 2022
It says something about national cultures that the French equivalent of The Mousetrap is Eugène Ionesco’s short play, The Lesson. It has been running at Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris since 1951, and is as far from the contained, comforting threat of Agatha Christie as drama has to offer.
The Lesson, Ionesco’s second play and an early example of post-war ‘theatre of the absurd’, remains a thoroughly disconcerting experience. Icarus Theatre Collective’s production, now at Southwark Playhouse, revels in undermining expectations. The audience struggles to comprehend what they are seeing, and the laughter becomes increasingly hollow as it becomes apparent what they are seeing is not entertainment.
From the opening moments, as The Pupil (Hazel Caulfield) rings at an invisible front door, the atmosphere is manic. Caulfield, blonde hair in plaits, is dressed as a model student in an apron and dirndl-esque dress. She is wildly over-excited at the prospect of her lesson, but The Maid (Julie Stark) is a forbidding gatekeeper and, when he eventually emerges, The Professor (Jerome Ngonadi) is a shambling, begowned caricature of a schoolmaster.
Each seems to be playing an absurd stereotype, and the lesson is also a sham. The Professor lavishes praise on The Pupil as she struggles to name the four seasons. Soon, however, her faults become more specific – she can add, but does not understand the concept of subtraction. Meanwhile, The Maid issues mysterious warnings to The Professor about what might happen if he gets overexcited. It is no surprise when things take a darker turn. The Professor starts to insist, didactically, that all languages are the same. The pupil-teacher relationship becomes tense, painful, with constant complaints of toothache, and then violent.
Max Lewendel’s production is tightly choreographed and highly absorbing. Caulfield plays The Pupil with a distinctive physical presence, bounding and tripping around the set like an automaton. Ngonadi is a creepy combination of bumptious and childlike as The Professor, but with the charisma to fix a front row audience member in a long, uncomfortable stare before pronouncing the word ‘pepperpot’ with undisguised lascivious intent.
Stark is a tweed-skirted tyrant, the ego to The Professor’s id. Together they form a destructive force, but the production has a fourth character – the blackboards that line the set. These, designed by Christopher Hone, are cunningly interactive and do far more than provide surtitles for the performers. They function both as conventional blackboards, with the cast writing on them in chalk, and as an autonomous entities, illustrating and embellishing the text in playful and then more menacing ways. It is an innovative, and rather brilliant device.
It is difficult to discuss the true significance of The Lesson in a review. Much of the play seems unlikely, unrealistic, and irrelevant to real life. Its purpose only becomes apparent in the final moment of the play, in one of theatre’s ultimate shocks. Only then we can understand how and why twisting knowledge and manipulating truth can have deadly consequences. The Lesson is not nearly as well known here as it is on the Continent and in a time when truth in public life is particularly opaque, Icarus’ revival is very timely. Their production is a clever, shocking, top quality theatre, and it shows Ionesco still has the power to scramble our minds.