A lesson in longevity

It’s easy to miss the theatre on the heaving Rue de la Huchette; neon signs flash falafel in your face, restaurateurs assault you with menus, cases of heaped seafood, shops full of silk scarfs and spinning racks of postcards are constant distractions. We walked past twice without noticing, until we realised that the dark doors and tiny lit window surrounded with monochrome photos and news clippings was the place we were looking for.  

In the heart of Paris, the Théâtre de la Huchette has been giving nightly performances of Ionesco’s La Leçon (The Lesson) and La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Prima Donna) since their very first staging more than 50 years ago. Ionesco’s first absurdist plays are still considred to be some of the best of their genre.

In La Leçon, a young girl arrives for her lesson with a private tutor. As the pupil struggles with the most basic concepts, arithmetic and linguistics lead to toothache, and toothache leads to an unsettling conclusion. In La Cantatrice Chauve, two couples tell stories and get confused in a British living room, whilst maids and firemen arrive and leave.

We pay at the tiny ticket booth, and watch as a crowd of what look like sixth formers pour out of the earlier showing. The black doors on the street front open straight into a dimly lit auditorium filled with squeaking plush seats, leading down to a stage framed by moth-eaten curtains. As soon as we have sat down, and a middle-aged couple (the rest of the audience) have taken their seats, the doors close, and La Leçon begins.

The scenery is well-worn from 50 years of use, and the dull colours, once bright, give the production an odd, flat feel, like a puppet show. Valérie Choquard’s performance intensifies this impression, pigtails, wide eyes and exaggerated movements turning her into a life-size doll.
Her excitement burbles and gushes over the audience, a sickly sweet opposite to Catherine Day’s maid, who shuffles in and out on frayed slippers, a sullen expression souring every monotone phrase.

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Between these two extremes is the teacher, Jean-Michel Bonnarme, firing from lost boy to classroom dictator with a disturbing lack of control. Like the others, his performance has the same worn feeling as the furniture.

Choquard’s sulky schoolgirl act starts to drag towards the end of the play, but as Bonnarme’s barely suppressed violence heightens, the play picks up energy until the climax relieves the tension for the last, unsettling beat.

Flung back onto the Paris streets, we grab a falafel and head down to the Seine. My friends don’t speak French, but they enjoyed the energetic performances.

At €15 the show is pretty steep for a student traveller, but could be worth it for a fun and unusual evening’s entertainment. A stellar production this is not, but it is an exciting opportunity to see the plays the way they were meant to be seen.