The Lesson

Eugène Ionesco, Translated by Donald Watson
Icarus Theatre Company
Southwark Playhouse

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Jerome Ngonadi Credit: @ikinyum
Hazel Caulfield Credit: @ikinyum
Jerome Ngonadi and Julie Stark Credit: @ikinyum

Initially dismissed by the critics and poorly attended by the public, Eugène Ionesco (1909–1994), the French-Romanian playwright, went on to become one of the leading dramatists of the French avant-garde in the1950s.

His plays were performed worldwide, attracting big names, such as Laurence Olivier in Rhinoceros, Alec Guinness and Googie Withers in Exit the King and Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan in The Chairs.

The Lesson, a classic of the Theatre of the Absurd, premièred in Paris in 1951 and has not had a major revival in Britain since Prunella Scales acted it in 1957.

The last time I saw the play was at the Royal Opera House in a dance theatre adaptation by the Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt. It had an excellent cast, Johan Kobborg, Roberta Marquez and Zenaida Yanowsky, and the score by Georges Delerue was perfect in preparing the audience for the horror to come.

A professor of mathematics and philology in his fifties gets so carried away with his own words that he abuses, rapes and kills an 18-year-old pupil. It turns out that she is his fortieth victim that day.

The girl can’t subtract figures but she can multiply them and suddenly multiplies the most fantastic sum in her head, explaining to the astonished professor that she has memorised all the answers.

Hazel Caulfield plays the girl with a bright innocent girly smile. Jerome Ngonadi is cast as the serial killer who psychologically manipulates her.

Ionesco’s one-act play, a surreal satire on power and knowledge, ends with a blatant political statement. The professor’s maid and accomplice gives the professor she controls a Nazi armband. The maid is played by Julie Stark. (In Flindt’s ballet, even more blatantly, the maid and professor carry the dead girl’s body off-stage, goose-stepping.)

Max Lewendel, founder of the Icarus Theatre Company, directs. The production is never hilarious nor sexually horrific enough.

Icarus is keen to make their work accessible to the deaf and the hard of hearing which is great; but, in this particular instance, there is far too much creative captioning technology. It overwhelms the play. The constant opening and closing of cupboard doors is distracting. There is so much writing on the panels, the words flashing on and off, that the dialogue becomes difficult to read.

I came out of the Southwark Playhouse hoping somebody would revive The Bald Prima Donna, another one-act play by Ionesco, which has not had a major production in the UK since 1956.

The Lesson will be touring the UK and Ireland in autumn 2022 visiting 40 venues.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch