The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco. Southwark Playhouse, the Little. 77 Newington Causeway, London SE1. To 23 July 2022. 4****. William Russell.

This is a stunning production of Ionesco’s one act play which kind of gilds the lily with amazing projections of the text – it may all be there to help the deaf but it also helps the hearing audience by adding a wonderfully weird layer visually as the drab parlour set gradually reveals more and more blackboards on to which. as if written in chalk, the words and mathematical problems the professor uses in his lesson to a new young woman student appear. The piece is about the rise of fascism, the way people are brainwashed to accept the unacceptable by those who run the system and who may very well be mad. Maybe everyone is not quite what Ionescu envisaged – the maid is far more sinister in appearance, she is your usual steely fascist dominatrix whereas I think he conceived someone apparently motherly but only apparently so, and the professor is bonkers from the start. But it does not matter – the play is impeccably performed with Hazel Caulfield as the eager beaver but far from bright pupil giving a heart rending performance. Keen to learn, gradually disintegrating as the professor’s demands get ever more insane, suffering toothache,and abuse she leaves the stage in quite the most horrifying way. No point in spoiling things, other than to say that she is, of course, dead. As the professor Jerome Ngonadi bumbles around, at first seemingly harmless, then anything but when he embarks on getting the girl to define knife as part of his philology course, against which the maid has warned him. As the maid who erupts into the mad world of the classroom, not as saviour for the girl but as the keeper of the professor, Julie Stark is ice cold. We find out towards the end that the student is the fortieth to have come to be taught as the door bell rings and another one has arrived.
The video work is amazing, Mark Lewendel has directed it so that the pace never falters, and the result is a spell binding, if at times mind boggling, affair. Whether Ionesco is responsible for the Nazi arm band the maid gives the professor or Lewendel I do not know, and in a way if the latter he is rather telling us what we should know anyway and the audiences in 1951, when the play was first staged, would have had no problem in recognising.
Maybe the cleverness of it all makes it less terrifying as what seems as time passes to become a trip into a world where the insane rule gets slightly affected by admiration at the wonders being projected and the way that the words are the same as those spoken by the actors. However this is a terrific staging of a play with a message as relevant today as it was in 1951.

Jerome Ngonadi: The Professor.
Hazel Caulfield: The Pupil.
Julie Stark: The Maid.

Director:Max Lewendel.
Costume Designer: Isabella Van Braeckel.
Set Designer: Christopher Hone.
Sound Designer: Matt Downing.
Video Designer and Creative Captioner: Ben Glover.
Lighting Designer: Stevie Carty

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