The Lesson

Tue 30th April – Sat 4th May 2013


James Fennemore

at 22:29 on 1st May 2013



It seems surprising that Kenneth Tynan, a Magdalen alumnus, should have criticised ‘The Lesson’ in an infamous print-debate with Ionesco for moving away from ‘characters and events that have traceable roots in life’. It’s too good an opportunity to miss to draw a likeness between Ionesco’s playlet and an Oxford tutorial: this 45 minute lesson is full of exasperated explanations, incomprehensible intellectual rants, baffling non-sequiturs, and the eventual conclusion that ‘philology leads to crime’.

The play is above all an exercise in the conservation of energy and the shifting of power between two people: a young female student and her ageing gowned tutor. The student begins as a precocious know-it-all, reeling off the answers to anything thrown at her, and confidently asking that she might be allowed, time permitting, to complete not just one but ‘all of the doctorates’.

The balance of the play tilts when she finds herself unable to comprehend the idea of subtraction, and the once bumbling tutor now begins to feed off her dwindling energy, growing and swelling until the final eroticised and morbid conclusion.

This production, directed by Thomas Stell in collaboration with the newly re-energised Experimental Theatre Club emphasises the ‘anti-reality’ elements of the play; bathed in blue light, the heavily made-up actors move in carefully stylised patterns of physical blocking, the student mechanistic and static, the professor more frantic, occasionally enacting a Dr Strangelove-like loss of bodily control.

Hannah Bristow shows good vocal agility as the cross-cast professor, using the full range of pitch that her female voice allows, making for a particularly enchanting final section where she becomes hypnotised by her weapon with sing-songy repetition. By choosing to ramp up the mechanistic quality of the student in the style of movement and speech, Stell has left Missy Malek’s performance with little potential to show her humanity, rendered an objectified foil to the professor’s ultimate agency.

This makes the sexualised elements of the play (to which Stell has paid close and appropriate attention) all the more jarring and unnerving. This, coupled with the perverse way in which Ionesco manipulates humour, is really compelling, as we are led – or even tricked – into laughing at a play which is in essence depicting the sadistic domination and murder of a young girl.

The production occasionally lacks finesse, particularly in the physicality of the actors; Benedict Tate’s portrayal of the maid in particular doesn’t have the bodily clarity or precision necessary in so stylised a performance. And I couldn’t help but feel that the sand that covered the floor was more of a symptom of Stell’s desire to try out some Le Coq-influenced Laboratoire techniques, rather than being particularly pertinent to the play. Perhaps he should have saved the trick for a production of ‘The Chairs’, where charting movement across the stage might become all the more significant.

This is, however, an adept and clearly thought-out student production. It is well worth taking the opportunity to see an engaging rendition of an important short work.


Nick Williams

at 09:11 on 2nd May 2013



This one act Ionesco lasts just about forty-five minutes but frankly that was quite enough to convince me that this is a slick, well-acted production of a play about everything and nothing.

When asked to watch a haggard looking professor attempt to teach a simpering girl some basic arithmetic it would be easy to feel that staying in for MasterChef might be a better bet for an evening’s entertainment. However, this performance knew it wanted to be awkward to watch and achieved this end with chilling power.

Watching the deliberately jarring opening exchanges between a pupil and a maid, set as the play is in cold blue light behind canvas and on sand, I certainly got the impression that the University’s Experimental Theatre Club were about to live up to their name. The maid uses stark physical movement and a shrilly aggressive voice while the pupil’s expression is as blank as the whiteness of her make-up.

The consistency in Thomas Stell’s directorial vision means that this acting, that could so easily be seen as overtly stylised and stagnant, in fact draws you into a world where education is choreographed into brutal routine – you don’t know whether to laugh or gape but you can’t help but be engaged.

The play is shaped by rising and falling patterns of tension between The Professor (Hannah Bristow) and his Pupil (Missy Malek) with the Maid (Benedict Tate) making advisory interruptions trying to curb his master’s disturbing enthusiasm. The combined vocal control of Malek and Bristow was impressive as they shaped these shifts in tension despite the occasional missed cue. Particularly of note was the moment that the teaching of basic arithmetic was elevated to a passionate climax (in every sense of the word) as the pair grew louder and sped up their exchange with highly impressive precision.

However, if Malek was somewhat shackled by her ‘damsel-in-distress’ role then Bristow was given free licence to engage and even shock. She showed great command of her voice and physicality, shifting her style of gesture from fixed and extreme when in conversation with the maid to looser and free-flowing when talking with her pupil.

But beyond this, the lead actress has something far more important – an extraordinary sense of timing. Whether shifting vocal gears to moments of outraged outburst or judging hesitation and interjection perfectly for comic effect, Bristow has her finger on the pulse and for that reason she delivers a supremely watchable performance.

Tate was fairly sharp in his physicality but lacked engagement due to the monotonous delivery of each line. To me the truculence in his interjections detracted at times from the delicately balanced tension between the professor and his pupil. In a way my concerns about Tate were my concerns about the production as a whole – the vision was clear, the ideas were evident but the execution was not quite as effective as I hoped. Where Tate spoke too loudly it did not blend seamlessly with the awkwardness of the moment but rather made me feel like I was watching three individuals trying to carry out their own objectives and not quite a cast creating something together. These moments were rare but they were striking.

That said, this is a production that throws us headfirst into a world of doubt, absurdity, power and passion all at once – it is indeed experimental to its core. Do not anticipate a relaxing three-quarters of an hour when you arrive at the BT, but make sure you arrive nonetheless for a rewardingly uncomfortable performance of a highly uncomfortable play.


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