30 October 2007

REVIEW: The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco

Icarus Theatre Collective

Old Red Lion, Angel, London (26.09.07)

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.

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