ALTHOUGH Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson is nearly 60 years old, it still packs an almighty punch. It remains a pressure cooker of a play acted out over 70 minutes, leaving the audience rather overwhelmed by the end. Initially amused, then somewhat horrified and feeling a little soiled by the events that have unfolded before their very eyes.
Matthew Parker’s production, playing at The Hope Theatre in London’s Islington until October 13, is a fine one. Using the theatre’s rather claustrophobic feel to expert effect, it cranks up the pressure expertly.
What starts as a simple pupil and professor relationship between Sheetal Kapoor (excellent) and Roger Alborough (exceptional) soon moves into darker territory as the professor reveals his true self.
To begin with, it is the pupil who seems to have all the issues – brilliant at adding up and multiplication, hopeless at subtraction. Over-enthusiastic. The professor by comparison is tolerance personified.
But as the young pupil’s failings bubble to the fore – and we move from arithmetic to philology – the professor’s tone moves from smooth to demonic. He dominates like an ogre. He oppresses like a dictator. There is evil in the air as he casts a devil’s spell over his pupil. Not even his loyal but conflicted maid (Joan Potter) can shake him out of his murderous hypnotic state.
The acting is superb. Kapoor says as much with her facial expressions (a closed eye here, a twisted mouth there) as she does with her words. She is borderline Tourette’s. Alborough effectively makes the jump from Mr Nice Guy to Mr Nasty (no mean feat) while Potter, in her drab clothes, conveys the conflictions that haunt her. Indeed, her noisy antics off stage say as much about the maid as anything she says or does on stage.
The set (designer, Rachael Ryan) is both simple and superb. White chairs, brilliant light and walls filled with words and algebraic equations.
For some, The Lesson will jar as a result of its monotonous ways. How many times are we told by the pupil that she has toothache (or does she?). Some would say far too many. The professor’s discursive predilections are also borderline tedious.
But Parker has done a fine job in shoehorning The Lesson into The Hope – and sprinkling it with moments of laughter. Seventy minutes that will leave you as exhausted as Alborough as he gets ready to embark on yet more evil deeds.