The Lesson takes 80 minutes to teach you that fascism is Very Bad, I guess? As a young Mademoiselle (Hazel Caulfield) enters the professor’s (Jerome Ngonadi) classroom, it soon transpires that the information being taught is contradictory and disorientating, the fight for intellectual dominance over the other being absolutely dizzying. The impossible goalposts of fascism would be a clever interpretation of Eugène Ionesco’s work from Icarus Theatre Collective, if it wasn’t so confusing.
For those unfamiliar with Ionesco’s plays, the playwright’s stories are usually creatively constipated, the ‘point’ of the plot often made obvious after strenuous hyperbole. It’s a long wait to hear the speech in The Chairs, and the stubborn monarch in Exit the King really procrastinates the whole dying thing. In The Lesson, we spend an awfully long time trying to figure out what the ‘lesson’ is.
That’s because the professor’s approach is bafflingly revisionist. He tries to teach Mademoiselle addiction and subtraction on the basis that that is just the way things work, but then chastises her when she relies on her memory, because “memory is a bad thing”. The juxtapositions in the tutor’s ideology would be all the more stark – and perhaps even comical – if we could compare and contrast between what came before. The most frustrating thing with this adaptation is that that creative decision is there for them, but they chose not to use it to its full potential.
I’m talking specifically about the show’s use of creative captioning, with dialogue displayed on numerous blackboards across the stage. There’s some wonderful stylistic choices deployed here, from distant speech literally ‘falling’ down the stairs on-screen, to the stern Marie (Julie Stark) having a rather fitting roman typeface for her lines (compared to the springy sans serif of Mademoiselle). Deep down, the play could be seen as arguing that fascism’s perfectionist drive towards the ultimate narrative only breeds dangerous doubt, deadly uncertainty and self-destructive uniformity (see the lengthy discussion about translations which is more headache-inducing than toothache-inducing).
The metaphor of a blackboard to demonstrate this constant erasure of what came before is on the cusp of being brilliant, but because it serves as an accessibility tool, the dialogue soon disappears after it is delivered. It would have been punchier if the professor’s previous instructions and lectures lingered on the blackboard as a permanent record, but such is the requirement of the blackboard as an accessibility feature that these are soon scrubbed off to make way for the new captions. If they are something purposefully chalked on by one of the characters, then they blur amongst everything else. There’s many a moment where our eyes have to search for the next line of dialogue as more and more canvases for the text to be projected onto appear. Christopher Hone’s expansive set design is surprising, and Ben Glover’s accessibility feature is impressive, unique and imaginative, but alas, it has its limitations.
The technicalities only offer so much, as does the acting, which strikes an impressive tone which is just tragically undermined by the lack of sound political commentary. Caulfield’s giddy exuberance is almost a tad unsettling, the kind of blind optimism which indicates everything is just a little bit too perfect. Stark’s constrained body language as Marie offers up something similar (that something equally as eerie as occurred before), while Ngonadi’s professor’s crumbling psyche is haunting. It’s enough to pique our interest and hold it for the majority of the lurching running time, but it’s soon strained as the lessons become more absurd and abstract.
When done right, the conclusion of an Ionesco play shouldn’t even be the moment of revelation which brings everything before it into focus. Instead, the fact that the ‘point’ is made so blatant should almost be borderline comical, in that it has to go to such a length to confirm your suspicions. Unfortunately, in this instance, the ‘point’ only becomes clear at the ending with an on-the-nose prop choice, rather than it being a humorous stating of the obvious. The post-show Google about the supposed meaning of the play only demonstrated the fact that the lesson, sadly, wasn’t as well learned as it could have been.
The Lesson is now playing at Southwark Playhouse until 23 July.
All performances come with creative captions, and the shows on 8 July (8pm) and 9 July (3:30pm and 8pm) will come with integrated British Sign Language interpretation.
Production Images: Ikin Yum.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Lesson’ for free in exchange for a review of the press night performance se a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.