The Lesson had all the ingredients of an incredible show. I have a weakness for ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, so my expectations were already high to begin with, and the delightfully ominous publicity about scraping knives further raised my intrigue.
The show began promisingly enough. The set was excellent, perfectly recreating the detritus-filled study of an eccentric academic. Catriona Scott was wonderful as the Maid, blending an upbeat chirpiness into her continual nagging. The Professor (Tomasz Hollanek) entered and was immediately engaging. His warm, melodious voice and well-articulated mannerisms were both captivating and sinister, setting up tension for how the narrative would proceed.
The eponymous “lesson” was quite ridiculous; it started with the most basic arithmetic and built up to linguistics, the Professor exclaiming that all languages shared the same words, structure, intonation and rhythm. The Pupil was ably played by Julia Gregg, who combined an enthusiastic optimism for studying with an unrelenting incompetence for basic arithmetic. Her ability to be incredibly annoying—particularly during her character’s bout of toothache—was remarkable, and I found myself sharing the Professor’s increasing anger with her.
However, as the play continued cracks appeared and I found myself abruptly losing focus with the narrative. I’m unable to work out if nerves overcame Hollanek—considering that this was his debut performance—or if he just didn’t know his lines. In a more conventional production this would be detrimental enough, but the absurd nature of the script relies on the Professor appearing fluid and domineering. As Hollanek’s lines stopped and started, the narrative was brought into too close attention and I found it hard to lose myself in his verbal conjuring.
Katie Scott’s style of direction was obviously well thought-out, but the distraction of a performer scraping through many, many pages of complicated dialogue left me unable to properly engage with the play. On a positive note, the lighting was quite professional, appropriately adapting to the Professor’s mood and reflecting the violent imagery. As such, technical director Rachel Harrocks’ skill should be applauded, as should Rachel Cook Dutaud’s stage management.
As the show got closer to the opening night, it must have been apparent that lines were going to be an issue; perhaps it would have been better for some of the more complex dialogue to be cut. I was also perplexed by the decision not to have a knife onstage, opting to mime one instead. Nonetheless, this was a very ambitious play for a first time performer to take on. Given another week of rehearsals, I have no doubt that the end result would have been incredible.
Photo credit: Rachel Cook Dutaud