Theatre Review: The Lesson – School’s Out(landish), Or Of Results And Reckoning

October 15, 2022


The Lesson / Directed by Greg Homann / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


Influential playwright Eugene Ionesco’s perspectives often explore themes of alienation while also satirising ingrained social and psychological constructs, which doesn’t sound like an invitation to grin and guffaw, does it? But in The Lesson, there are multiple laugh-out-loud moments. Be aware, though, that they will likely be tempered with discomfort or disbelief or some awkward combination of the two.

Graham Hopkins plays Professor, an old educator who’s seldom – or perhaps never – left the university town in which he lives and works, which may have further restricted the already narrow perspectives he embraces when it comes to his worldview. Initially, the character appears to be a harmless old dodderer, but comments from his domestic helper, Marie (played with a delicious Afrikaans accent and comic timing by Fiona Ramsay) plant seeds of doubt early on.

A pupil arriving for a lesson (Lihle Ngubo, making a strong, focused debut) sees the Professor beginning with overly eager praise of the youngster’s academic ability – she is 18, but still working at a basic level in some of her subjects. Already, it’s difficult to shake a sense that the man’s focus may not only be on the work being explained, and without knowing any more at this point, the atmosphere, from an observer’s point of view, feels slightly tainted.

Add to this some hugely loquacious explanations of often very simple concepts – the pupil cannot possibly be expected to keep up – plus occasional interruptions from Marie to warn the Professor about looking after his health; odd, stylised interactions where pacing and lighting add an element of horror; and signs of the pupil’s escalating stress, and the whole piece becomes both frenetic and splenetic.

Ionesco’s original play does not focus – as this adapted version does – on race as a major theme, and by choosing this outlook in a South African context, the story becomes unavoidably politicised, delving into issues such as colonialism and access to education. Whether that adds to or dampens the impact of the story’s outcome is debatable. Patriarchy gets a much-deserved allegorical kick in the crotch either way, but audience members with strong feelings on the more contextual standpoints may find that thread conflicting slightly with the more absurdist elements of the script. Hopkins is superb as Professor, having to articulate a huge number of peculiar theorems and patterns of thought, most of which are constructed to be incongruous and are which therefore can’t be remembered using lines of logic. He also physically expresses the Professor’s shifting character well. Ramsey feels a touch wasted, with Marie being by far the smallest role in the piece, but she is wonderful each time she appears. Ngubo is all energy and engagement and commits whole-heartedly to the emotional and physical challenges of the role. This performance will certainly place her squarely on the radar for future productions.

An unconventional piece that yields rewards if you’re willing to place orthodox expectations aside.