Opening a play in first week is a formidable task, but it is one that the team of The Lesson seem to pull off. The play centres on a Pupil and a Professor, in a one-act that amuses, excites and confuses the audience as we try to figure out what is actually going on. The Professor becomes increasingly frustrated with the Pupil’s failure to comprehend basic arithmetic and her inability to ‘reason it out’. She can only recite and remember, she cannot understand the ‘whys’ or the ‘hows’.
This should not be interesting but, somehow, it is. And this is due predominantly to a superb performance by Olivia Madin. Her childlike innocence is utterly beguiling and her fixed smile disguises the mind the audience longs to read. Stock phrases like ‘very good Sir, thank you Sir’ and ‘Oh Sir’ in Madin’s mouth become completely bewildering and captivating.
Max Fletcher’s performance as the Professor, although less immediately convincing, will surely develop over the next week. Though the characterisation may need more work, there are touches of brilliance here. Fletcher’s strongest moments are in an emotive speech where he discusses the constructs of the world, his voice powerfully cracking on the term ‘civilization’: a nice touch by the director, Sam Bell, on the futility of existence and society.
Staging is often a challenge in a play with such a small cast (the Professor’s Maid is later introduced as the third and final character but had not yet been blocked into the action at the time of press preview), as it is sometimes difficult to maintain audience interest with repetitive movement. However, I found the use of the table (the one landmark on the otherwise stark set), quite powerful. It becomes a barrier between the two characters with Madin’s seated constancy contrasting nicely with Fletcher’s incessant pacing. When he breaks this barrier, leans over the table, and touches her hand, the palpably erotic and oddly aggressive effect is well structured.
I would like to have seen more effective use of the pauses so integral to Ionesco’s script but this should come as confidence develops over the next week. In summary, this is a well considered, carefully constructed and powerful piece that should kick off our theatrical season in style. Madin herself is certainly one to watch over the next year.