Rarely has the phrase “My tutor’s going to kill me” had greater resonance. In Eugène Ionesco’s The Lesson, the Pupil (Missy Malek) arrives at the house of the Professor (Hannah Bristow), ready for a lesson in which “Arithmetic leads to philology and philology leads to crime”, in the words of the Professor’s Maid (Benedict Tate). The Lesson is a masterclass in the pet themes of Theatre of the Absurd: time, repetition, master-servant relationships and above all the failure of language as a vehicle for communication. Words, the backbone of the theatrical experience, are playfully stripped of their meaning and thus become emblematic of the absurdity of the human condition.
The staging for the Experimental Theatre Club’s production was promising. The sand-covered floor provided a nod to Beckett’s Happy Days, and suggested ephemerality and the possibility of smoothing over and starting again. However, I felt that far greater use could have been made of this potentially versatile set, particularly in view of the play’s ending (or rather new beginning). The Pierrot-style make-up combined with monochromatic costume choices, enlivened only by the splashes of red on the Professor’s gown, created a suitably dark tragi-comic atmosphere. The permanent low-level crackle of white noise in the background was an interesting addition but the potential of the idea wasn’t quite fulfilled. It could have increased or been varied to reflect the changing dynamics of the play.
While Hannah Bristow certainly commits to the role of the male Professor, cornering the market in ‘sinister’ and ‘angry’, the reversal of gender in the roles of the Professor and Maid struck me as odd, especially since the female pupil was still played by a woman. Again, an idea was not carried through with the conviction needed to make it work – the play needed to be entirely cross-dressed or not at
all. There is no overt play on gender identities in Ionesco’s text. Indeed, the sexual subtext plays more on the lecherer/lecturer and virginal pupil dynamic, and this came across only in fits and starts in this production. The blank-faced, expressionless delivery of the Pupil and the Maid also lost the complex sense of gradation and rising tension within the play.
This was typical of the production – ideas which teetered on the brink of adventurous lost their nerve and pulled back from the brink. Billed as a performance with ‘Dadaist aspects’ (which never surfaced), the Experimental Theatre Club’s production lacked the real rebel streak, the true ‘experimentality’, of the twentieth century art scene.
A good effort with some fine ideas, but lacking the courage of its convictions.