Isn’t it always the way? You wait and wait to see a single professional production of a classic 1950s absurdist play, and then they all come at once.
Hot on the heels of Soulpepper’s superlative revival of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Modern Times Stage Company’s Soheil Parsa is now serving up some solid Eugène Ionesco with The Lesson.
On Thursday, Canadian Stage added Max Frisch’s satire The Arsonists to the mix. Add a smack of Jean Genet and we could call it a festival.
English-speaking critics, especially those with leftish leanings, have long had a problem with the post-war metaphysical masterpieces lumped together as the “theatre of the absurd.” Just recently, the Guardian’s Michael Billington argued that absurdism was essentially irrelevant, “a movement that has lost its momentum and one that is of little help in explaining to us the complexities of today’s world.”
Indeed, if you like your theatre to “explain” things, then you may find The Lesson frustrating. But the serious problem with that human desire for explanations delivered by artists or teachers, prophets or politicians, is one of the still-fresh themes of this early Eugène Ionesco work.
For his production, Parsa has reunited actors David Ferry and Michelle Monteith, who previously played the roles of predator and prey so exceptionally two autumns ago in an award-drenched production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted.
The older, maler actor of the two, Ferry, plays the Professor, dressed in a mortar-board hat, graduate robes and round glasses like a cartoon owl. The Pupil, played by an alarmingly youthful Monteith, who seems to be aging Benjamin Button style, is prim and proper in an old-fashioned school uniform.
At first, the Professor – despite a discomfiting stutter and palpable sexual awkwardness – genuinely attempts to help his pupil understand the rudiments of subtraction.
Gradually, however, his lesson plan makes less and less sense. The Professor goes from lecturing to hectoring and tries to cram his theories about languages such as Spanish, Neo-Spanish and Oriental down the Pupil’s throat. No wonder she develops a toothache, which soon spreads.
Written in 1951, The Lesson functions as a kind of dramatic companion to George Orwell’s famous essay on politics and language; it’s an attack on a degraded form of discourse that the Romanian-French writer Ionesco would later deride as “nothing but clichés, empty formulas, and slogans.” Nothing relevant to our public discourse today, of course.
Like Orwell, Ionesco – whose father was a Nazi, then a Stalinist stooge – was opposed to totalitarianism, left or right. (His skepticism of socialist rhetoric was the subtext of his 1958 battle with the Brecht-loving British critic Kenneth Tynan.) Those concerns are clearest when the Professor’s maid – played here by a deliciously dry, cross-dressing Costa Tovarnisky – arrives on the scene late in the play to clean up her employer’s mess. She hands the gibbering teacher an armband: “If you’re afraid, wear this, then you won’t have anything to be afraid of.”
Parsa – who recalls reading this early Ionesco play when he was at Tehran University prior to the Islamic Revolution in Iran – emphasizes The Lesson’s anti-totalitarian themes through Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design: scraping sounds, gunfire and the creak of a heavy metallic door suggesting a torture chamber. Likewise, the Professor’s delicate, politically correct tip-toeing around his student’s mistakes eventually turns into goose-stepping.
With this fulsome foreshadowing, Parsa sometimes gets ahead of the play. It’s the same thing for Ferry’s Professor who, with sweaty strands of hair squiggling out of his cap, is clearly a creep from the get-go.
Ferry’s performance is impressive from a technical standpoint, with his hiccups and flashes of frightening fervour, but his effort was still very much on display at The Lesson’s final preview. The Professor’s tics and poses had yet to cohere into a convincing character.
On the other hand, Monteith seems less to be performing than to be possessed. Her Pupil is the very picture of a sweet schoolgirl until the Professor slices through her strings and she transforms into a suffering, shattered marionette. I can’t describe her chilling looks: She’s supernatural or something.