You ignore what Ionesco has to teach us in The Lesson at your peril – the Hope Theatre is onto another winner here with a strong in-house production
“Don’t you understand that I’m simply trying to help you”
Eugène Ionesco’s La Leçon is the French equivalent of The Mousetrap – it’s been running at the Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris since February 1957. British theatres have been a little less enthusiastic about the French-Romanian playwright over the years but following the NT’s Exit the King, Matthew Parker’s Hope Theatre is also redressing that with this English-language production of The Lesson.
And though Ionesco is known as an absurdist, there’s something directly compelling and disturbing here. Sheetal Kapoor’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Pupil turns up for instruction with Roger Alborough’s Professor but her precocious confidence soon takes a battering as lessons in arithmetic and philology dissolve into abstracted nonsense and he gets increasingly angry at her inability to keep up.
Watching balefully from the sidelines is Joan Potter’s Maid – “Monsieur must do what he thinks best” – and as well she should, as what is happening is less education than indoctrination. Donald Watson’s translation spares us nothing of the way in which this man abuses language to wield as a kind of weapon against his charge, breaking down her resolve, ignoring her pleas for help – in the current climate, it’s a power dynamic that is horribly resonant.
Rachael Ryan’s staging in the round and Chris McDonnell’s lighting rarely finding true darkness also means that this production interrogates our role here. We’re more than audience members, we’re witnesses to something, maybe even complicit too as our reactions are plain to see. As the play gets darker and darker, fewer people carry on laughing but you do notice those who do and you just wonder…you know which side of The Handmaid’s Tale they’d end up in.
Parker’s direction of what is a passion project for him is clearly finely attuned to the essential rhythm of this play, Simon Arrowsmith’s ominous soundscape playing a vital role in tightening up the atmosphere. But what sticks in the mind is what happens after the climax, after the storm, something about the banality of evil creeping in through the unblinking straight-forwardness of the Maid’s actions (Potter may have the less showy of the roles but the impact she makes is stuning). This is how society gets infected, from within, through subtle shifts in everyday behaviour – hell, this is how fascism takes hold. And you think again about those people who were laughing…