Review: The Lesson

by Jane

Arriving eager and keen to start her first day of lessons, the young pupil (Elizabeth Hay) has dressed herself up nice and smart for the event. Wanting to sit for her Doctorate (“both of them”, she insists), she finds herself under the tutelage of the increasingly manic Professor (Guy O’Grady), and, well, it is written by Eugene Ionesco, so I guess you can suppose sitting for her Doctorate never happens.

I have tooth ache! Photo Ben Galbraith.

With costuming (Ben Galbraith) setting the production in the 50s, Nescha Jelk’s production of The Lesson is in many ways a traditional reading of the text. But it is the casting and direction of a young Professor– not only cast young, but played at the actors age, which gives this production its added level of intrigue. When he disparagingly glares at his maid (Chrissie Page) and announces “I’m older than 21!” you get the idea that he in fact just turned 22 and is relishing in the fact that he is a big boy now.

Written as an elderly man, a closer approximation to how we perceive a professor to look, the casting of O’Grady creates the image of a young man who is clearly very bright, but always molly-coddled, creating a socially isolated man who has ideas above his worth. One gets the idea that this man never had any friends at school; and perhaps that is why he is so bright – if you whittle the hours away in the library, there is no one to notice you don’t have any friends.

O’Grady’s Professor gives off the air of a very spoiled and very rich little boy – if undoubtedly talented, this does not extend further than the pages of a text book, and certainly doesn’t extend as far as common sense. Overly confident in his own powers as an eligible bachelor, a teacher, and a compassionate explainer of ideas, the Professor has no view that perhaps he is taking things too far – and perhaps the bow tie and leather jacket is not the most attractive choice.

As O’Grady increasingly pontificates: on maths, on entomology and languages, the sheer volume of the monosided conversation – punctuated only by the insistent cries of his student “I have tooth ache” – is staggering. He insist on teaching the difference between addition and subtraction using bizarre and inane examples (“Now, I nibble away at one of your ears, I nibble away. How many ears do you have left?”), or the root of languages which really are most striking in their similarities, in that their similarities are all the same. As he goes on and on the absurdity and hilarity becomes greater and greater, despite the unending pain and complaints of his student.

And then it takes nothing more than a moment of physical contact. A moment of exertion of a male teacher over his female student, and the room goes cold. The audience goes quiet, the professor becomes unforgiven. While a spare laugh escapes from the audience in the rest of the play, this is the absolute pinpoint of a moment when the intent changes from an intent to teach to an intent to exert control. No longer the slightly-cute-in-his-adorable-young-social-awkwardness professor, but a man who should know better.

I do wonder if Jelk and O’Grady perhaps succeeded a little too strongly in making us hate the professor; if this meant humour in the final scenes were lost. If making the execution of the student so sexual it is truly terrifying, the “tender” moments are lost. But then again, this is Ionesco. He is hardly supposed to be easy.
Page has the least to do in her role, and at first comes across as quite stiff. Whether she loosens up towards the end or this stiffness of character becomes justified when we know the whole story I’m not sure. I think perhaps it is interesting to not this is not the first play I have seen primarily created by young artists and small companies where the younger actors quite upstage their older counterparts.

You can tell if he watched Friends, he'd be asking How You Doin? Photo Ben Galbraith.

Hay enters the scene face washed, hair brushed, shoes were clean and neat. A bundle of nerves and excitement, Hay has that gorgeously endearing knowledge and skill to truly act with every inch of her body. Shoes move every which way as she fidgets with excitement and frustration. The Student’s pleasure in realizing she knows something (be that one plus one, the fact she has ten fingers, the ability to multiply 3,457,765 with 4,765,237…) is the adorable excitement of a cat who’s just caught a ball. I do suppose it is just utmost sensitivity to the implanted idea of a tooth ache, but as Hay increasingly writhed in pain, my mouth began to ache, too.

In the lovely CitySoul theatre the stage is simple; the finer details of Galbraith’s design not realised by the audience until the very final strains of the production are played out. A combination of imagined/invisible props with actual pros was slightly confusing for my date – and even for me there seemed to be not explanation of why some were seen and some were not. I think the reason, however, I had no problem appreciating these props were “real” was because I had spent the previous night at Bound, creating nearly everything in minds eye.

Coming to grip with the internal logic of any play (or any art form, for that matter) can frequently be something hard to grasp. Ionesco takes this, bends and contorts reality until logic: and thus the basis on which we judge his character’s knowledge and morals becomes indefinable. Where the Pupil and the Professor would truly sit within our world is not something that I suppose could be reasoned out. But this is a great production to try and figure it all out with.

Accidental Productions presents The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco.  Directed by Nescha Jelk, Composition by Ben Callaghan, Set and Costume Design by Benjamin Galbraith, Lighting Design by Jamie Harper.  With Elizabeth Hay, Guy O’Grady, and Chrissie Page.  At CitySoul, until March 9. More information and tickets.