Photo: Dara Munnis
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
My review of Zoe Ní Riordáin's production of The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco coming up just as soon as I'd like nothing better than some arithmetic ...
"You always have a tendency to add. But one must be able to subtract too. It's not enough to integrate, you must also disintegrate"
- The Professor
After World War II much aesthetic thinking was characterised by the mis-recognition of ourselves and our fantasies of control. This found an output in the Theatre of the Absurd which, pioneered by Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, showed that language - the primary means with which we reassert our existence - can indeed be limited, muted and eventually give way to silence and void. It's a cheerful tagline but it's funnier than you might think; Absurdist drama has a darkly comic M.O.
There has been an impulse in recent years for some Irish playwrights (Darren Donohue, Vincent O'Reilly, Siobhán Donnellan, Caroline Lynch) to renovate the form, and now as director Zoe Ní Riordáin brings the Ionesco classic The Lesson to the stage we have an opportunity to ask: how does the Theatre of the Absurd resonate today?
"Modern society has become very complex", says the Professor - played here by the witted Daniel Reardon. It's a diverse tutorial, ranging from arithmetic to philology to calamity as a deranged power dynamic emerges between him and his pupil.
The Theatre of the Absurd operates on a conceit where the individual is revealed insignificant and subject to greater forces than their own. You do have to search for it here. One might read that Ionesco's own lesson plan concerns that emerging crisis of the flow of knowledge, and how knowledge has become no longer acquired by the training (or Bildung) of the mind but now supplied and consumed as if a commodity. The Pupil memorises the possible solutions to the sums but skips the basic training of the mathematical principals to solve them. The violent transformation of the Professor to impose his discourse connotes Fascism, suggesting that the control of the flow of knowledge has ultimately become a question of government. This terror may have hit closer to home if the director pushed a bit more on those visceral and horrific images in the play's finale.
It's a fine set piece for Reardon, who gives a calculated performance, and while Ní Riordáin's intelligible production spells out some interesting findings its conclusions don't deliver that deafening silence which is the Theatre of the Absurd's triumph.
However, it is a gutsy move. Realist drama - to use the Professor's terms quoted above - "integrates" logical argument and narrative and will always be a friendlier alternative to the likes of the Absurd which "disintegrates" man and meaning. Ní Riordáin has taken a bold move as a promising director, and the only source of knowledge is experience. Let that be the lesson.
What did everybody else think?