Here is a bracing account of a play that helped to thrust its author to the forefront of the so-called Theatre of the Absurd some 50 years ago. I had not expected Ionesco’s strange parable of sex’n’violence to hold the stage so well, after many of the ideas he initiated have spread into the mainstream. But Max Lewendel’s touring production for Icarus Theatre succeeds by the strength of its acting and the steadily increasing tension. His direction introduces a more vivid sexuality than Peter Hall would have been permitted in 1955, directing the first English production at a time when theatre censorship preferred French windows to French drama.
A pupil arrives at a professor’s apartment. She is eager, impulsive and, as Amy Loughton plays her, unaware that she radiates sexuality. She twirls her fingers, she bounces, she grins and disconcerts the stammering young-old professor. John Eastman smiles awkwardly, fiddles with his academic gown, praises her slightest achievement. That she knows that one and one make two sends him into ecstasy.
But problems appear. Subtraction baffles her, though she can multiply billions. No longer is she the model pupil. Eastman’s voice hardens. He throws chalk. When he switches to philology she is slow to grasp the distinctions of pronunciation that the audience realises do not exist.
Something more alarming than education is going on here, and when eventually, as bookshelves collapse, he symbolically rapes and stabs her to death (the 40th pupil he has thus dispatched that day) we are watching the workings of unchecked power. In the closing scene the professor’s culpably forgiving maid (Julia Munrow) pins a US armband on him (in Ionesco’s text he suggests a swastika), and the author shows himself as political – and contemporary – as any writer setting his play in a modern war zone. This remains a timely and fascinating play.
The experience of watching this absurdist drama, directed here by Max Lewendel, is somewhat like that of watching actors play out caricatures in a melodrama; our emotions are constantly being toyed with as we are thrust from one extreme to the next. Comedy, tragedy, fear, mystery, sex, violence, disturbance: The Lesson has them all.
The experience is further intensified by the physical limitations of the Old Red Lion Theatre. The tiny, square, bench-seated, three-tiered theatre doesn’t allow the audience much of that sublime seclusion many theatres offer (especially if one is sitting front-row, as I was). The action is literally happening right in front of you; the reality/fantasy barrier is very narrow here. This made the play all the more powerful for me as these larger-than-life characters, in this illogical scenario, are living and breathing right at your feet (I was even kicked by The Professor in a scene of heightened action!).
In fact, Icarus Theatre Collective uses this intimate setting to its advantage in many areas. The concise set (designed by Christopher Hone) fits perfectly with the action and almost becomes a character in itself in the role of an ever-extending chalkboard, which The Professor (John Eastman) uses more and more maniacally as the play evolves. Eventually the entire set (notably, all black, except for an array of dark hard-bound books and various nick-knacks) is covered in the insane ramblings of The Professor. This proves an extremely effective metaphor for the deterioration of the lesson and the loss of control, which marks The Professor’s steady demise.
The characters are the focal point of The Lesson. They come from three of Theatre’s largest character-pools - Maid, Pupil, Professor – and this has given the actors brilliant resources which to base their versions on. At first, I felt The Pupil (Amy Loughton) was taking over-acting to new heights and was duly concerned. However, as the play progressed Loughton masterfully portrayed the deterioration of The Pupil’s enthusiasm for the lesson and her increasing pain at being in the presence of The Professor. I soon realised this over-acting was actually the exaggeration inherent to absurdism, which all three actors used successfully to create these intense, hyperbolic characters.
The music (sound design by Matt Downing) is also a well-used device in The Lesson. The very particular way it is introduced – through The Professor’s elaborate ritual of placing the record-needle and The Pupil’s resultant jubilation at the music produced – establishes music as an innate aspect of the play. It continues to be implemented effectively throughout to strengthen and give further meaning to times of high tension or importance.
Indeed, the general intensity of this play is it’s strongest point, however it is by no means all there is to it. Ionesco makes sure he throws in just enough wit and irony to be sure we don’t take it all too seriously. This tactic is implemented in the last scene when we cannot believe The Professor has killed his pupil and even less so The Maid’s reaction to this fact - she hugs him like a little boy and says it will all be okay. It is at this point The Maid (Julia Munrow) reveals this as the fortieth time The Professor has killed a pupil today! Ah, immediate relief for the audience as we are reminded this is absurdism, – phew! - we can laugh. I think.
Of course the sinister aspects of this play remain palpable; soon another pupil knocks enthusiastically at the door, ready for their lesson. The set is still in disarray from the last killing, and The Maid futilely attempts to clean up – but what to do with the bloody knife? It is at this point the play ends, a neat circle, which Ionesco has linked up so perfectly. And it is at this point we clearly see the genius of The Lesson and, hence, Icarus Theatre’s interpretation.
Almost full marks school of Absurd
They start mad and they get madder. Yet such is the energy compelling the characters in this production that the audience are aghast as they observe 50 different ways to teach 4 - 3= 1 for one and a half hours.
Written by Eugene Ionesco as a political analogy in 1951, The Lesson becomes a nightmare as the teacher turns into a violent dictator.
Ionesco is a brave or foolish choice for a newcomer. This is Theatre of The Absurd and it can fall flat on its face at the drop of a hat.
But director Max Lewendel has his own vision for the piece.
The actors start larger than life. Amy Loughton's impossibly keen, impossibly innocent pupil twists her fingers in a study of manic gaucheness. And when she sits, anticipation lifts her legs and excitement crosses and uncrosses her feet with intriguing speed.
John Eastman is intensely focused as the professor. His impeccably formal congratulations on the correct answer to 1 + 1 burst forth with well-meaning fervour and delight - only to switch to the utmost gravity as he asks for her views on 'plurality' with such deliberation that the question quivers with significance.
This is how the mania and the high style succeed. The actor's energy is directed so specifically that the beast of chaos that charges through Ionesco's work like his own rhinoceros is safely routed through the play.
Lewendel's Icarus Theatre Collective is a strong team.
A subtle choice of music underscores the text.
The design, brilliantly conceived to reflect the galloping chaos, consists of the whole set and everyhing in it being painted mat black - so the chalked messages that begin on the blackboard spill out onto cupboards, walls, tables, floor, like graffiti escaped.
On first sight The Lesson seems an uncomplicated affair; a young pupil's first meeting with her new professor. However, what unfolds after the first few minutes of this one-act play is anything but straightforward.
How would you translate "The roses of my grandmother are as yellow as my grandfather who was born in Asia" into Neo-Spanish? How about into Italian? Or Latin even? Can you multiply 5,162,303,508 by 3,755,998,351 without using a pencil? Could you define plurality? This play might be called The Lesson but don't expect to learn the answers to any of these questions here. Oh no, you're going to learn something far more important. This lesson is most certainly not for those who want to sit at the back and pass notes.
The Icarus Theatre collective's production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece is brilliant. A fast-paced, sixty-five minute screaming journey from a bare classroom into utter chaos. It is exactly this journey that is such a delight to watch.
Christopher Hone's inspired set design, which starts out dark and claustrophobic, unfolds before the audience like an impossible arithmetic problem into one giant blackboard. The staging perfectly compliments the solid performances from an equally strong trio. From John Eastman's brilliant performance as The Professor, who descends minute-by-minute from timid fool into raging tyrant to Amy Loughton's flight from comic to tragic as 'The Pupil.' Julia Munrow's foreboding 'Maid' is as chilling as the classical score which underpins the whole piece.
What the company achieves so well is creating a sense of loss of meaning, which is so inherent to this piece. It perfectly captures the meaningless nature of words, language, even meaning itself and, with that, the sheer futility of it all. My only gripe at Max Lewendel's direction was the use of the American arm-band and hat which seemed a well-intended attempt to make the play more current but came off feeling a tad contrived.
The most impressive thing, which is a testament to the Icarus Theatre Collective's work, is that by the end of the play it is not the characters that have learnt from this lesson, but the audience themselves.
It is impossible not to enjoy Icarus Theatre Collective’s production of Ionesco’s one-act play. It is a perfectly cast piece of absurd theatre that will leave you scratching your head in wonder.
John Eastman plays the professor with the right balance of menace and hilarity, initially mild-mannered, but as his pupil’s limitations become more evident, his frustrations grow until he becomes a dangerous, bullying tyrant.
Increasingly sinister looks are thrown at his innocent pupil, while Julia Munrow makes a strikingly austere figure as the maid, who warns the professor not to teach mathematics or philology. But her warnings fall on deaf ears as he becomes more frantic - not unlike the sketch from TV’s The Fast Show, where Johnny Nice Painter transforms into a madman at the mention of the word ‘black’ - “Black, black - you lock me in the cellar and feed me pins!”
There’s an inventive use of the stage as blackboards double up to become doors, and the floor becomes a blackboard, as the play gains pace and the professor frantically scribbles in chalk everywhere, while the classical music adds to the sense of urgency and madness. One particularly effective exchange is when the professor is teaching his pupil how to subtract. She cannot understand the concept of subtraction, although she turns out to be a genius at addition, and so ensues a fast-paced exchange of numbers between them.
Amy Loughton plays the wide-eyed pupil with such huge enthusiasm that she is constantly jigging about, and any irritation at her over-acting is short lived as the play becomes increasingly nonsensical and disturbing.
Much like the government ads that proclaim kids are positively gagging to be taught pretty much anything, as you watch the professor (John Eastman) begin The Lesson, you get the nagging feeling that something just isn't quite right. It certainly isn't - but while the simple logic of subtraction is lost upon the otherwise prodigious student (Amy Loughton) no matter how much he tries to explain, our interest is multiplied by the ironic commentary on pedagogy, in addition to remarks on the stability of knowledge itself, equating with an enjoyable and thought provoking - if not bemusing - evening.
"You can never be sure of anything" scrawls the professor over the blackboard, and while we're all amused at the absurdity of 1+1 and 4-3, when he turns to philology you're not sure whether Ionesco is mocking the pretentious or the low-brow with a sprinkling of references that only the linguists will get, and worst of all, you'll still laugh, due to the jolly and brooding pace. Soon enough, the chemistry between the two characters begins to fizzle into something more than a professional relationship - slightly disconcerting as we're not quite sure how old she's supposed to be - boundaries are breached and the utility of force is brought into disrepute. Again, we are lead to question the authority of knowledge.
Faced with the question of authority (or rather, lack of) today's teachers might well take a warming to the professor's methods but in the original play the finger was actually pointing at Nazi oppression. Icarus have given this a new twist, and it won't take a Oxbridge graduate to guess which 'oppressive regime' has replaced the Nazis. It seems clever; fitting, but a little stale in the face of all the other plays that cover this topic, and right from the start, rather than a bit seemingly tacked-on at the end. This is nitpicking, but otherwise I would have been forced to give the production a top rating. As it stands, with excellent leads, well directed sound and a clever set, you cannot fail to be entertained - not to mention baffled and left a tad pensive - quite simply meaning you've just experienced good theatre. It's not rocket science - don't be absurd, I'm telling you, that's how it works!
THEATRE of the absurd took off in the 1950s with this one-act drama by Eugene Ionesco, played to perfection in this production by the Icarus Theatre company in which warnings of dark things to come are heralded by the sombre set in which everything, even the clothing of the maid, is grey.
An excited, fluffy-headed girl arrives at the home of a professor for some tuition but is soon out of her depth. The professor, the archetypal egghead, presents her with ever-increasingly fatuous questions and their relationship slowly changes from benign tolerance to hysterical anger and violence.
A first rate cast is headed by an energetic John Eastman who superbly manages to blend irrational bullying with erotic fondling of his pupil, the restlessly chattering young ingénue played with astonishing maturity by Amy Loughton. Julia Munrow is the dour maid, forever trying to protect her master from his own shocking behaviour.
As the fun inexorably fades from the classroom and turns to horror, Ionesco's message of the abuse of power by those in authority becomes spelt out loud and clear in a play that takes a grotesque situation and makes it all too horrifically believable.
A background of measured baroque music only serves to highlight the ferocity of a drama that is as stimulating as it is unsettling.
A Masterclass Lesson in Acting 14 Aug 2007
The Icarus Theatre Collective have produced an utterly sumptuous revival of a Ionesco classic, cleverly creating a rich atmosphere through lights, sounds and set that instantly grabs the audience. The level of acting was superb, raising the bar for actors all over the Fringe, by giving Ionesco's dialogue a fierce manic energy. In short, superb performances in a brilliant production of a hilarious play. See it.
I saw the lesson over the weekend and was very impressed with the realism and conviction of all involved. The unforgiving deconstruction of a young mind by a troubled professor was conveyed brilliantly and the rising tension grew to form a climax that seemed enormous considering the small theatre in which it was performed. I am also quite bemused at the scathing attack below and can only conclude that the said person cannot comprehend a performance that lies outside of the limited view in which they see Ionesco. A purist view, without room for variation, much like the tormentors ionesco highlighted in his work. An intelligent adaptation I would highly recommend.
21 Aug 2007
Why all the rave reviews? I've acted in Ionesco's The Chairs and this show just annoyed me. The performances were superficial and self indulgant, but you could tell the actors thought they were marvellous. And had they tried to crowbar in some sort of message about America? The teacher kept breaking into a cod American accent for no reason. The most disappointing show I've seen this year.
Truly delivers 13 Aug 2007
reviewer: Amanda Raddick, United Kingdom
What an amazing show! A cast that truly deliver and such a bizzarre event! I have no idea what was going on half the time and still loves every minute. If you're in the mood for something different and gripping, terrifying and hilarious, have a look at this!
Great show at Hill Street! 13 Aug 2007
One of the most stunning productions I have seen in a long time. This dramatic re-invention of such a wonderful (and often lost) classic text is such a welcome relief. Superbly acted by all three performers, they interact brilliantly with an ever-changing set, score, and even lighting! I was initially thrown by some unusual cuts to the text and some rather striking directrial choices and eventually saw their relevance and potency, showing the decent into madness these characters face, and for the 40th time today! Really a lovely addition and breath of fresh air. Can't recommend this show enough. Go see it.
Excellent 18 Aug 2007
Ionesco's madness, sureal style and humour can be difficult to understand if you have never heard of him. Some of his french play may even be impossible to translate, but This play is fantastically translated and played by professional actors. A real pleasure.
bizarre brain bender 11 Aug 2007
This play grips and bemuses.The acting was superb and the subject matter thought-provoking. The ideas chase through your head for a long time after the play is over(we had to google to discover exactly what it was all about).I do think,however, that the girl is played as too young,making it more unnecessarily pervy.
The Lesson, Blake Theatre, Monmouth
Dominating the programme cover for this hard-hitting production is a large blue apple.
A seemingly jolly piece of art nouveau, you surmise, until you notice something superimposed onto the apple's face - a faint semblance of a skull. This haunting image sets the tone for the nightmarish twists in Eugène Ionesco's drama, which opens with a seemingly innocuous lesson between an erratic professor and his young female pupil.
But the leisurely exchange descends into a dark, disturbing and ultimately brutal malaise.
Designer Christopher Hone's bleak arrangement of blackened furniture provides surfaces for the professor to furiously scribble endless phrases. By the end the set is covered in nonsensical chalk markings, starkly demonstrating the chaos at the heart of the play.
Eastman is chilling as the wayward teacher battling dark, paedophile urges, while Amy Loughton is fantastic as the innocent teenager who realises too late the mental torture to which she is being subjected. I think some audience members were taken aback initially by the stylised dialogue, but placed in context, the overall meaning begins to make sense. But written in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Lesson is a comment on the devastation suffered by shell-shocked nations, such as Ionesco's native Romania, at the hands of Nazi Germany.
A daring production by an energetic new company, the London-based Icarus Theatre Collective, it pulls no punches in its visceral pursuit of pure absurdism.
In Bucharest the public's memory will surely remain on the creative performance of "The Lesson" by Eugene Ionesco, produced by Icarus Theatre Collective in London. A jewel of a show; perfect. Actress Amy Loughton (Pupil) and actor John Eastman (Profesor) have managed a difficult and elegant performance under the baton of a talented director, Max Lewendel. Marie (the third role, played by Julia Munrow) helped and the set was inspired and functional designed by Christopher Hone. For 1h 5 minutes, the duration of the show, the audience was deeply impressed by the talent of actors and their performance.
It's very odd: I don't remember a production of Ionesco's The Lesson for at least a decade (and probably more) and yet there have been two within a couple of months, this one by the Icarus Collective and one by Not Applicable at London's White Bear (which Lennie Varvarides reviewed).
The Lesson (1951) is Ionesco's second play, following The Bald Prima Donna, and he described it as an "anti-play". It's short - this production runs for just 65 minutes -and, like its better known predecessor, takes language and meaning as its starting point.
The characters are a hopelessly naïve schoolgirl (Amy Loughton), a mild mannered but increasingly demented professor (John Eastman) and a maid (Julia Munrow) who strives unsuccessfully to keep the professor under control and who cleans up after him. But this is Theatre of the Absurd and they are not characters in the conventional theatrical sense but rather abstractions, representations of the bourgeois world which Ionesco despised, and their inability to communicate and the increasing futility, anger and, eventually, violence which this provokes is the real subject of the play.
Building on the essential meaningless of language which we find in The Bald Prima Donna, where the dialogue is based around the unconnected sentences of an English-French phrasebook, the lesson which the professor is giving to the schoolgirl begins with the supposedly universal language of Mathematics and then moves on to the study of language itself, Philology. The professor's efforts to get the pupil to understand become more and more frantic and he begins to bully and force comprehension on her by his increasingly dominating attitude, her incomprehension becomes more dense and she develops a toothache as a defence mechanism, and the fears of the maid are played out in front of us - for, she tells us, the fortieth time that day.
The play has been interpreted as a response to the Nazi régime in France, where Ionesco lived during World War II, and Icarus tells us that they have "twisted" the text to make it an examination of the state of England today. In some ways no twisting is required, for the alienation which results from the inability to communicate lies at the centre of the play, but to suggest that The Lesson is a play about bullying, whether on a personal or international scale, actually diminishes it. But to be honest, it is Ionesco who shines through this production, not the directorial gloss.
The performances are superb: Eastman grows from an almost nervous, mild mannered pedagogue to a raging tyrant with an astonishing smoothness and Loughton's increasing bewilderment and desperate attempts to hold her own against the growing storm evoke real sympathy in the minds of an audience which, at first, were inclined to dismiss her as a silly little girl. And Munrow's increasing desperation to control her boss, followed, on her failure, by the matter of fact covering up and the suggestion that it is all about to start again, are chilling.
Chris Hone's set, in which everything - including the stage floor - turns into a blackboard, is cleverly conceived and carried out.
Icarus Theatre Collective entertained the Blake Theatre with their dark performance of The Lesson by the famous "Absurdist" playwright Eugene Ionesco.
The play takes place in a classroom, where a teacher and his maid are hosts to their new pupil. The teacher goes through several lessons with her, discovering her knowledge. As the play progresses, the teacher becomes irritated by her lack of learning and in the end, kills her!
The actor of the pupil, Amy Loughton, a former pupil at Monmouth School and apparently one of the first people in the school to learn her lines before starting rehearsals according to Mr. McGladdery, appeared to the audience as a 12-yearold fidgeting school girl. Although then unaware of it, I later found out that she is actually 25, but you couldn't really tell by her convincing performance (and her size). John Eastman also put up a gripping portrayal of the insane teacher.
The haunting set added to the dark effect on stage. Black bookshelves covered the stage and made it feel very claustrophobic. To make the play even more clever, as the play progressed, the teacher would use every bookshelf, table and even the floor as a blackboard, writing out his theories in chalk because of his desperation.
As a surprise to Amy Loughton, this was the first time the audience had laughed so much at the silliness of this play, compared to recent places on the tour and thus this added a new perspective on the play.
This play seemed to make the audience question their laughter because of its dark atmosphere and the laughing, in my opinion, made it even darker. I highly recommend seeing this if they are still on tour anywhere else and it is conveniently short, considering that the play is all set in one place.
The nightmare style is even more obvious in the production of the play “The Lesson”, presented by the Icarus Theatre Collective from London, directed by Max Lewendel. Compared to the version by Horaţiu Mălăele of the same play, a version slightly “from our shores”, full of the typical flavour of this Romanian actor, here everything is distorted. The actors themselves have a physical aspect of a mad house, the professor (John Eastman) is crooked, limber, the pupil (Amy Loughton) is skewed, like a balloon, and Maria, the housekeeper, is like a witch. The costumes they wear (Christina Stergios) are contrasting: the soberness of the housekeeper and the frock coat of the professor contrasts with the blue outfit of the pupil and its swollen shape. The set (Christopher Hone) is extremely ingenious; all the furniture unfold into a blackboard, on which there are drawn figures, formulas, and undecipherable texts. “The Lesson” is closer to “La cantatrice chauve” in language, with two great demonstrations of absurd logic, the lesson about addition and subtraction and the lesson about linguistics.
The idea of the play is stated by the housekeeper, terrified that the professor begins to teach arithmetic and philology, because she concludes: “Arithmetic leads to philology, and philology leads to crime”. And this is exactly what happens: after the great efforts made by the professor to teach the pupil four minus three he then translates a phrase into Spanish and its derivatives (which would be all the languages on earth) in which the phrase is exactly the same in every language. After reaching the height of miscommunication, seeing that the Pupil cannot give a simple answer, in spite of knowing multiplications at the level of billions and quadrillions, the professor kills her. She is the 40th pupil he kills that day. He and the housekeeper lay her in the coffin in the cellar, next to the other 39. But how are they going to carry to the graveyard those 40 coffins: won’t people ask what’s inside? They will not, if the professor will wear an armband, a sort of a swastika. And, as an aside to the “Summit” in Bucharest, the actor puts a Yankee cap on his head and the swastika on his arm is replaced with an American flag. This image is supremely ironic when the professor, in this way militarized, takes the corpse of the pupil and vanishes from the library. The whole show is played as if in a delirium. During his senseless demonstrations The Professor falls into a trance, to which he brings his pupil as well, the moments of closeness between them having erotic undertones, as much as the musical score (Matt Downing). Actually, this show, as well as Niall Henry’s shows, demonstrates to us the functional role the music can have, when it is integrated in the theatrical performance. What is left now is to write down the echoes of this play in the British press, as they appear in the programme notes: "It is impossible not to enjoy Icarus Theatre Collective’s production of Ionesco’s one-act play" (The Stage). "Directed so specifically that the beast of chaos that charges through Ionesco's work like his own rhinoceros is safely routed through the play" (Rebecca Banks, Ham & High). “A delight to watch… inspired” (Kevin Hurst, Extra! Extra!). "A daring production by an energetic new company, the London-based Icarus Theatre Collective, it pulls no punches in its visceral pursuit of pure absurdism" (Daniel Lombard, South Wales Argus). The three shows are faultless theatrical demonstrations, true lessons of professionalism from all points of view.
I'm still coming back down to earth after a great weekend - a superb show, and a lovely group of people - I had an enjoyable and convivial time ! I thought your production was first rate, and I had lots of positive feedback from the audience. The schools workshop went well too. I do hope the rest of the tour goes well, and hope the Company can come again!
Ambitious attempt to relate play to today brings in a host of associations.
Who’d have thought Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco, Rumanian-born but long-time inhabitant of France till his death in 1994, might have sold one of his scripts as the basis of a Hollywood slasher-movie? Or at least made a few francs from offering it as the scenario for a sophisticated French murder movie?
This 1951 play’s threat may be less all-engulfing than in the about-to-be-revived Rhinoceros but the violence is a lot more personal. The eager young pupil who turns up at a Professor’s door for her lesson is only one in a cycle who end up dead, as he becomes frenzied in his power over her, his sexual desire not at all the enlightenment she thought she’d come for.
But it’s this girl’s fate that’s shown and which in 2007, after all the violence-against-women stories, true or fictional, we’ve seen or read, has to leap out of the Absurdist manner and appear horrific in a way at odds with the play’s early arithmetical comedy.
The mathematics, given a pupil who can add easily but finds subtraction problematic, then announces she has learned the infinite possibilities of multiplication ready for what ever figures come her way, links nowadays to the type of Oliver Sacks case-studies enacted in Peter Brook’s The Man Who…, or suggests an autistic capability.
It’s hard to ignore these when Max Lewendel’s Icarus Theatre production ends by dragging in another contemporary issue. Ionesco’s post-World War II context is replaced by that of the War Against Terror, as the professor eventually dons a camouflage baseball-cap and assumes an American accent.
And the final suggestion of a cycle repeating itself, as books and scrawled spellings and calculations begin to be re-shelved or wiped away, makes for a bitter image of continuing destruction, personal or political.
Amy Loughton brings a happy eagerness to her Pupil, hands and legs flapping like a bird keen to improve its bird-brain, then convincingly agonises over the toothache the Professor ignores. John Eastman relies overmuch on external mannerisms to suggest his character’s full potential treat, but Julia Munrow is suitably efficient yet detached as a domestic assistant.
I spent much of Icarus Theatre's revival of 'The Lesson' thinking: Blimey, Ionesco must have had a rum old time at school. His 1951 one-acter, which ushered in the (hip again) Theatre of the Absurd, stars a tyrannous teacher and a curiously innocent pupil. He starts out wildly excited at each simple lesson she learns: 1 + 1 is 2, for example. But she struggles with subtraction, and the Prof loses his rag. Soon this is less seminar, more psychological torture, as pedagogue force-feeds pupil ever more meaningless rules - on pain of a fatal punishment.
The play neatly encapsulates the violence and powerplay inherent in any teacher-pupil relationship. But whereas I appreciate the concept, that doesn't necessarily make 'The Lesson' engaging theatre. On a set (by Christopher Hone) that can transform into a giant blackboard, Max Lewendel's production starts strongly: Amy Loughton is a bundle of nervous energy as the giggling pupil, John Eastman is the scatty Prof - both a notch or two larger than normal life. But the crazier the lesson, as the Professor insists on another nonsense principle, the less I believed or cared. To his stream of gibberish, it scarcely seemed to matter whether I listened or not - although it might have done were the drama played straight rather than slightly demented.
In the closing moments, the Professor's mysterious maid pops a stars-and-stripes armband on him - and the play takes on a new dimension as a criticism of American foreign policy. But that gesture also buys a pretty cheap route to a resonance which, in any case, I'd rather have appreciated in the moment than after the event. There's no gainsaying the confidence and capability of Lewendel's revival, but for me, it was sometimes as much of a strain as fourth-year maths.
A lesson in subversion that falls a little short of the mark.
The Icarus Theatre Collective promise that “tales of mutilation, rape, and incest are not anathema to us, rather we choose to relish in what others shy away from, show what others daren’t, destroy boundaries when others would create rules.”
Their take on Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist drama The Lesson is not as subversive as they might hope, but it does entertain. This taut hour-long production thrives on the tension between a pupil (Amy Loughton) and her new professor (John Eastman), contorting itself around notions of homogeneity, where notions of humanity’s plurality are ‘vague, confused’. Eastman’s performance anchors the production; if at first his physical presence and affected enunciation bring to mind Sven Goran Eriksson, his giddying instruction of arithmetic – where addition equates to attraction and subtraction to subjugation – instils a latent menace which later erupts into fevered proselytising.
The professor’s impassioned critique of fascistic ideology, particularly the necessity of disintegration is aptly mirrored by the gradual destruction of the dank, claustrophobic set. Books are strewn everywhere, shelves collapse, and the canny deployment of all available surfaces as a blackboard makes the room a palimpsest for the language of power.
His instruction that the neo-Spanish language is the mother tongue of all the European languages, demonstrated by picking a series of action figures out of a box, is very funny, but tempered by the more chilling insistence that any over-arching rule of language is nothing more than the “vulgar empiricism of the plebs”.
Against such a domineering central performance, Julia Monrow as the maid, can only offer pale support, and Loughton’s fidgetiness seems cartoonish. Her incessant complaints about her ‘toothache’ are so infuriating that when the professor kills her in a manic outburst, it is hard not to sympathise with his exasperation.
The fact that the next pupil is already ringing the door as the maid attempts to clear the mess re-affirms that violence substantiated by such crazed and constricting reasoning will only perpetuate itself.
As someone who had never heard of Eugene Ionesco (perhaps the only person in the audience who hadn't) I felt uncertain as to what I would be seeing. I knew very little about "Theatre of The Absurd"; all I remember from my A-Level module on TOTA was that Artaud died with his shoes on his hands. Not great hope for me.
I saw the piece, and it quite frankly changed my life. The plot is relatively simple (a girl goes to see a Professor, who changes from a mild mannered scatty scholar to a bullying tyrant) but it has a lot of undertones.
In this version, put on by Icarus Theatre Collective, these undertones were based on Capitalism; Eastman, as the professor, gradually changed his voice from an English toff to that of an American congressman, his age appeared to change, and his writing (for some reason) deteriorated.
Having since researched the piece (with the knowledge that it was written in the 1950s) I have found out that the subtext was that of Nazi-ism; but the changes between the original and this version were subtle. Examples of how The Lesson was Americanised included the use of the Stars and Stripes instead of a swazsticka armband; a globe spun to face the USA & the use of toy soldiers (trinkets used as modern day propoganda to imply that war is good and that these icons are heroic) to show the spread of languages.
The play is well acted, the set is interesting (perhaps more detailed than it first appears) and the direction has some good ideas.
So, how did it change my life. Well, after seeing it, I did a lot of research on Absurdism, thus sparking off my interest in that style of theatre. Now that I know more about the genre (and now I've read a translation of this play and a couple of other Ionesco's), perhaps I'll go to see the show again, with better knowledge of the changes between this version and the original. I may pick up more nuggets and, who knows, I may put on an absurdist piece of my own one day. Fantastic.
A fresh faced pupil resplendent in blue school blazer is eager to begin studying for her 'total doctorate'. Teacher is initially impressed: his confident young charge knows the names of almost all the seasons and that 7 + 1 = 8. She falters in the face of 4 - 3, however and develops a nagging toothache when the begowned master turns to the subject of philology.
Hardly a glowing endorsement of the education system, Eugene Ionesco's classic anti-play is, among other things, an absurdist study in power relations. The dialogue between pupil and master begins as a fairly harmonious musical duet but quickly sours into a (rather one-sided) verbal duel, in which language loses its power to communicate rationally and literalises itself instead into a lethal weapon.
Max Lewendel's fine production imaginatively turns the Etcetera's black-box space into a giant blackboard. As the teacher, John Eastman delivers his nonsense educational riffs with splendid comic timing - particularly when recounting the story of the man who concealed a speech defect by selecting his hats carefully - and makes the transition to loose-limbed pedagogical killer with impressive ease. Cara Horgan offers able support as the increasingly disoriented pupil, her bright bonne-élève smile subsumed by burning cheeks as she repeats her plaintive pianissimo appeal: 'I've got a toothache!' The classroom relationship has perhaps been overly sexualised - this is '50s absurdism made over as '90s 'in-yer-face' apocalypticism - and the use of the US flag seems a bit reductive, but it's a clever, entertaining show.
"Ionesco’s strange parable of sex’n’violence".
"Max Lewendel’s touring production succeeds by the strength of its acting and the steadily increasing tension".
"His direction introduces a more vivid sexuality than Peter Hall would have been permitted in 1955".
"Something more alarming than education is going on here".
"This remains a timely and fascinating play".
"Comedy, tragedy, fear, mystery, sex, violence, disturbance: The Lesson has them all".
"The reality/fantasy barrier is very narrow".
"These larger-than-life characters, in this illogical scenario, are living and breathing right at your feet".
"The concise set (designed by Christopher Hone) fits perfectly with the action and almost becomes a character in itself".
"An extremely effective metaphor for the deterioration of the lesson and the loss of control".
"The characters are the focal point of The Lesson".
"Loughton masterfully portrayed the deterioration of The Pupil".
"Intense, hyperbolic characters".
"The very particular way [the music] is introduced establishes music as an innate aspect of the play... to strengthen and give further meaning to times of high tension or importance".
"The general intensity of this play is it's strongest point, however it is by no means all there is to it".
"The play ends, a neat circle, which Ionesco has linked up so perfectly".
"We clearly see the genius of The Lesson and, hence, Icarus Theatre's interpretation".
"Full marks school of Absurd".
"They start mad and they get madder".
"The Lesson becomes a nightmare as the teacher turns into a violent dictator".
"Ionesco is a brave or foolish choice for a newcomer... But director Max Lewendel has his own vision for the piece".
"Amy Loughton's impossibly keen, impossibly innocent pupil twists her fingers in a study of manic gaucheness".
"John Eastman is intensely focused".
"Fervour and delight".
"The question quivers with significance".
"The mania and the high style succeed".
"Directed so specifically that the beast of chaos that charges through Ionesco's work like his own rhinoceros is safely routed through the play".
"Lewendel's Icarus Theatre Collective is a strong team".
"A subtle choice of music underscores the text".
"The design, brilliantly conceived to reflect the galloping chaos".
"The Icarus Theatre collective's production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece is brilliant. A fast-paced, sixty-five minute screaming journey from a bare classroom into utter chaos".
"This lesson is most certainly not for those who want to sit at the back and pass notes".
"A delight to watch".
"Christopher Hone's inspired set design, which starts out dark and claustrophobic, unfolds before the audience like an impossible arithmetic problem into one giant blackboard".
"The staging perfectly compliments the solid performances".
"John Eastman's brilliant performance as The Professor, who descends minute-by-minute from timid fool into raging tyrant".
"Amy Loughton's flight from comic to tragic as 'The Pupil'".
"Julia Munrow's foreboding 'Maid' is as chilling as the classical score which underpins the whole piece".
"The company... perfectly captures the meaningless nature of words, language, even meaning itself and, with that, the sheer futility of it all".
"The most impressive thing, which is a testament to the Icarus Theatre Collective's work, is that by the end of the play it is not the characters that have learnt from this lesson, but the audience themselves".
"It is impossible not to enjoy Icarus Theatre Collective's production of Ionesco's one-act play".
"John Eastman plays the professor with the right balance of menace and hilarity".
"Julia Munrow makes a strikingly austere figure".
"An inventive use of the stage".
"The classical music adds to the sense of urgency and madness".
"Amy Loughton plays the wide-eyed pupil with such huge enthusiasm".
"Absurd theatre that will leave you scratching your head in wonder".
"In Bucharest the public's memory will surely remain on the creative performance of 'The Lesson' by Eugene Ionesco, produced by Icarus Theatre Collective in London".
"A jewel of a show; perfect".
"Actress Amy Loughton (Pupil) and actor John Eastman (Profesor) have managed a difficult and elegant performance under the baton of a talented director, Max Lewendel".
"The set was inspired".
"For 1h 5 minutes the audience was deeply impressed by the talent of actors and their performance".
"Excellent leads, well directed sound and a clever set".
"Our interest is multiplied by the ironic commentary on pedagogy".
"An enjoyable and thought provoking - if not bemusing - evening".
"Jolly and brooding pace".
"The chemistry between the two characters begins to fizzle into something more than a professional relationship".
"Icarus have given this a new twist".
"You cannot fail to be entertained - not to mention baffled and left a tad pensive".
"A seemingly jolly piece of art nouveau".
"This haunting image sets the tone for the nightmarish twists in Eugène Ionesco's drama".
"Dark, disturbing and ultimately brutal".
"Eastman is chilling as the wayward teacher".
"Amy Loughton is fantastic as the innocent teenager who realises too late the mental torture to which she is being subjected".
"Audience members were taken aback".
"A daring production by an energetic new company, the London-based Icarus Theatre Collective, it pulls no punches in its visceral pursuit of pure absurdism".
"The performances are superb".
"The characters are a hopelessly naïve schoolgirl (Amy Loughton), a mild mannered but increasingly demented professor (John Eastman) and a maid (Julia Munrow) who strives unsuccessfully to keep the professor under control and who cleans up after him".
"This is Theatre of the Absurd and they are not characters in the conventional theatrical sense".
"Eastman grows from an almost nervous, mild mannered pedagogue to a raging tyrant with an astonishing smoothness".
"Loughton's increasing bewilderment and desperate attempts to hold her own against the growing storm evoke real sympathy".
"Munrow's increasing desperation to control her boss [and] the matter of fact covering up [is] chilling".
"The level of acting was superb".
"Instantly grabs the audience".
"Fierce, manic energy".
"Raising the bar".
"Superb performances in a brilliant production of a hilarious play. See it".
"What an amazing show".
"If you're in the mood for something different and gripping, terrifying and hilarious, have a look at this!".
"One of the most stunning productions I have seen in a long time."
"This dramatic re-invention of such a wonderful (and often lost) classic text is such a welcome relief."
"A lovely addition and breath of fresh air."
"Can't recommend this show enough. Go see it.".
"This play is fantastically translated and played by professional actors."
"A real pleasure".
"The acting was superb and the subject matter thought-provoking".
"This play grips and bemuses".
"Unforgiving deconstruction of a young mind".
"The rising tension grew to form a climax that seemed enormous".
"An intelligent adaptation I would highly recommend".
"The violence is a lot more personal".
"The eager young pupil who turns up at a Professor's door for her lesson is only one in a cycle who end up dead, as he becomes frenzied in his power over her, his sexual desire not at all the enlightenment she thought she'd come for".
"And the final suggestion of a cycle repeating itself, as books and scrawled spellings and calculations begin to be re-shelved or wiped away, makes for a bitter image of continuing destruction".
"Amy Loughton brings a happy eagerness to her Pupil, hands and legs flapping like a bird keen to improve its bird-brain".
"John Eastman also put up a gripping portrayal of the insane teacher".
"Haunting... claustrophobic... clever".
"I highly recommend seeing this".
Max Lewendel’s production starts strongly.
There’s no gainsaying the confidence and capability of Lewendel’s revival.
"The set (Christopher Hone) is extremely ingenious."
"Great demonstrations of absurd logic."
"Faultless theatrical demonstrations, true lessons of professionalism from all points of view."
I'm still coming back down to earth after a great weekend - a superb show."
"I had an enjoyable and convivial time!"
"[The] production was first rate".