Crime and pedagogy: The Lesson @Swkplay

There's a moment in the Lesson when the Professor is giving his eager pupil tutoring in mathematics. She has excelled with additions to this point and can multiply infinitely. But the whole concept of subtraction baffles her. The Professor's disappointment is palpable, and his anger grows every time she says seven when trying to subtract three from four. Thus begins a descent into absurdity and madness in this briskly paced piece that appears to be about nothing and everything. It’s currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse.

The Lesson is an early play by playwright Eugene Ionesco and is an excellent introduction to the theatre of the absurd. The premise is that a relatively mild-mannered professor provides an enthusiastic young lady tutoring so she can get her doctorates in everything. Well, if knowledge is power, why not learn everything? It made perfect sense to me. She is bursting with excitement to learn at first. But each time she struggles to comprehend and get it right, things become darker. 

There are long discussions about seemingly necessary mathematical calculations or how to talk about roses in multiple languages that equally boggle the mind and amuse. But among the absurdity is a wry commentary on power and brute force. 

The cast gives this less-than-straight play a sensible dose of absurdity. Jerome Ngonadi portrays the Professor as a man-child without a teaching plan. Hazel Caulfield gives the pupil a seductively energetic streak even as she struggles with basic subtractions. And Julie Stark, as Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper, is the play's lack of conscience. 

In the beginning, the production looks like the action takes place in a simple bleak flat. But soon, the space becomes dominated by an array of chalkboards, captions and projections. The projections are creative captions for deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members. But they become integral to understanding the piece for everyone. It feels as if you don't just see the performance; you become fully immersed in the absurdity of the text. 

Directed by Max Lewendel, The Lesson continues at Southwark Playhouse until 23 July. A tour to follow and check the production’s website for further details. 


Photos by Ikin Yum

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