“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
Anyone who is familiar with Eugene Ionesco’s plays knows that they are absurdist in nature. But beneath the Monty Pythonesque humour and rhetoric, there’s usually an underlying message of a more serious nature. In Ionesco’s The Lesson – which is directed by Matthew Parker – we find one of most important examples of the Theatre of the Absurd. Sheetal Kapoor plays ‘the Pupil’ who arrives at the home of the Professor (Roger Alborough) to help her prepare for her doctorates. But instead of working on advanced mathematics or other areas of academia, they end up going around in circles – especially with elementary arithmetic.
The Professor has a Maid (Joan Potter) who appears periodically to warn of the dangers of discussing certain subjects. The Professor vehemently rejects these warnings, but as time goes on, things go from being peculiar to downright disturbing….
Because of the nature of The Lesson, anything less than 100% from the actors will negate the tension sought for the play. Thankfully, everyone is more than up to the task. Initially, Alborough’s Professor is calm and collected, but incrementally his ‘detached’ persona is eroded away by the events of the day, until he is someone… very different. Alborough’s also particularly adept at tongue-twisting rhetoric that echoes Gertrude Stein’s literary style.
Kapoor is effusive as the knowledge-hungry Pupil – able to make calculations of incredible complexity, yet failing to comprehend the most rudimentary of concepts. Her physical symptoms of pain – a psychosomatic by-product of the Professor’s words ‘hurting’ her brain – is believably portrayed. Amusing at first, it’s felt exponentially as things deteriorate further between them.
Potter as the Maid subtly steals every scene she’s in. In many ways a simulacrum for the audience, Potter conveys a lot with her body language and terse turn of phrase.
So what is The Lesson really about? In some ways its meaning lies in the eye of the beholder, but there’s one interpretation that seems very obvious to me. How often in public life does the meaning of numbers and words become malleable? You might think such things are unchangable, but if history has taught us anything it’s that during times of political unrest, ‘inflamed rhetoric’ becomes the norm. During those times, ‘black’ becomes ‘white’ and vice versa, and facts and reason are replaced with untempered emotion…
The whole point about ‘lessons’ is to learn from mistakes made. In the case of the Professor and everyone he knows, the same behaviour is repeated so nothing is ever really ‘learnt’…
© Michael Davis 2018
The Lesson runs at the Hope Theatre until 13th October.