[2011115] The Lesson

The Lesson

Accidental Productions @ CitySoul

7:30pm, Wed 9 Mar 2011

The Lesson was the source of all manner of buzz around the streets of Adelaide… so much so that FringeTIX had long since popped up the “sold out” sign for the last couple of performances. But hey – it’s my birthday, I really want to see the show, I know people, and there’s a guest list; I insist on paying at the door, though, as is my wont.

So it’s a chockers house at CitySoul that takes in the simple set – just a couple of chairs and an old laminated table, the walls adorned with faded posters of the Periodic Table and other sciencey stereotypes. The Maid answers the door to let in The Pupil, a bundle of nervous energy – very much the skipping schoolgirl. In chasing her Doctorate, she’s here for a private lesson with The Professor, but Ionesco’s play rapidly devolves into an absurdist tête-à-tête between the self-important teacher and the painfully inquisitive student.

Ionesco’s Professor was supposed to be a man in his fifties, so having Guy O’Grady play a much younger role was a bit of a risk for director Nescha Jelk; but O’Grady fills the role perfectly, making the self-righteous Professor a socially inept bully. Elizabeth Hay’s Pupil is a joy: initially bubbling with the thrill of the occasion, she exhibits a keen intelligence that, at times, is neutered – one moment she struggles to subtract one single-digit number from another, the next she is multiplying seven-digit numbers in her head. As The Lesson progresses, her effervescence disappears, replaced by a toothache that then spreads to the rest of her body. Chrissie Page’s Maid is both a tutting guardian and dutiful accomplice, and a convincing third pillar on the stage.

As the Pupil becomes more and more distracted by her pain, the Professor’s frustration with her increases – with the result being that he pushes her harder, straying from the initial mathematics into etymology and philology – and the absurdity really kicks off as he starts attempting to lecture her using preposterous non sequiturs. She further withdraws, afflicted by her escalating aches… and then the Professor, clearly resenting the loss of control over the deteriorating lesson, attempts to regain it – by controlling her. Physically.

And the room goes cold. The laughs disappear. It’s all got a little bit… well, evil, and it’s impossible to ignore the unrealised sexual tension onstage. The eventual stabbing murder of the Pupil is almost a relief, because it allows us to discount other improprieties. When the Maid hints that this is the fortieth (hey! lucky number!) student killed today, disposing of the knife in the same manner that we’d seen at the play’s start (establishing the cyclical nature of the play), we can laugh again… because that’s clearly absurd, right?

Full of great performances, a glorious script, some great laughs, and stone-cold brutal brainfuckery, The Lesson was an absolute blinder. All the street buzz was spot-on; one suspects that they could have extended the season for even more sold-out shows.

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