A professor and a student sit opposite each other at a table discussing mathematics – nothing out of the ordinary, especially in Oxford. Except that the student is only able to add and is unable to understand the concept of subtraction. One plus one equals two, but what four minus two equals is a confounding mystery.
This is the stuff that Ionesco’s absurdist play “The Lesson” is made of. This one act play is essentially a really long tute that immerses you in the very strange world of an ageing professor and his young pupil.
The three-person cast is strong. Max Fletcher is intriguing as the professor. Although he looks slightly baby faced, his performance successfully captures a sense of age and melancholy. Fletcher’s character has many facets: lecherousness, wisdom, restraint and patience. The only quality that could be played up more, particularly towards the climax of the play, is anger. Olivia Madin, as the pupil, more than matches Fletcher’s performances. She is like a creature from another world; slightly robotic, overly enthusiastic and without any real human emotions.
Ionesco’s material is fairly unrelenting and Sam Bell, the director, has succeeded in making what could be pretty dull, surprisingly interesting. The simple set of a table and chairs, monochrome costumes (tails for the professor, a school dress for the pupil) and basic lighting forces attention on acting. Every moment of eye contact, every small gesture, every change in tone demands to be noticed. The only real movement in the play is pacing, which is used to great effect, though would be more interesting with an occasional change in route. The play describes itself as “sparkling with humour”. You won’t fall out of your seat because you’re laughing too hard but there are a few zingers. When the pupil forgets the fourth season, the professor hints “it begins like autumnmobile”.
It may seem silly to go to a play about a tutorial, when we’re all part of one every week. But that’s why this play is worth seeing. It questions why and what and how we learn. “The Lesson” is a challenging but captivating production that remains with you as you exit their world and step back into your own.