Tuesday, April 23

The Lesson – Southwark Playhouse

A zealous pupil comes over a professor’s house to study for her total doctorate, an educational certificate in all subjects of life. The excessively polite and timid professor grows restless and domineering as his ignorant student struggles to level up with his academic demands. The pupil develops a painful toothache which renders her incapable of listening to the professor’s teachings. Their mutual pains turn lethal when in an orgasmic climax, the professor murders the young girl. The maid comes in and reprimands the professor – this is his 40th kill of the day… Fortunately she knows how to get him out of trouble and cleans it all up before another student comes to the front door, starting the play all over again.

The Lesson is a seminal text in the Theatre of the Absurd, a short-lived yet important theatrical movement born out of the senseless destructions and existential anxieties of WWII. Written by one of its most prominent figures, French-Romanian dramatist Eugene Ionesco, this highly entertaining production by Max Lewendel for Icarus Theatre shows us just why.

You know you’re in for a mad ride the second someone takes out a pencil twice the size of their head. Hazel Caulfield plays the pupil with such earnest excitement it is hard not to get crushed when her spirits do. Jerome Ngonadi is powerfully merciless as the Old Professor who grows stronger as he feeds on the mind of the young. The duo’s dynamic is flawless, never missing a beat in this expertly choreographed direction by Lewendel. It is genuinely wonderful to see two actors so comfortable in their roles and with each other, they play with palpable joy and abandon, never forgetting the audience but never working too hard for our attention.

Photo: Ikin Yum

Julie Stark as the austere maid does a good job at contrasting with Caulfield and Ngonadi’s animated performances, though sometimes lacking the delicate nuances the two leads still manage to bring to their interpretations.

Christopher Hone’s set design is gorgeous – an ever-evolving old-fashioned study room with concealed blackboards and cleverly projected subtitles helping us follow the increasingly chaotic rambling and scribbling of the professor. The costumes by Isabella Van Braeckel are also on point, with a final reveal tying up nicely the senseless intrigue into a thought-provoking social commentary on totalitarianism and the power of indoctrination.

If you’re looking for an intelligent and easy night of laughter, look no further.

The Lesson, by Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Max Lewendel for Icarus Theatre is playing at the Southwark Playhouse, till 23rd July 2022. https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show-homepage/the-lesson/

Reviewer: Klervi Gavet

Reviewed: 5th July 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★