The Lesson: A collective fever

It’s all heat and burgeoning mania on the Mannie Manim stage. The rain is late to Johannesburg this year and the city has become unbearably hot and dry. Still, we are eager to see the Greg Homann adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s play The Lesson, so we pack ourselves into the stuffy theatre, trying not to brush up against one another too much.  

The Lesson is set in a small and insular university town (Makhanda, most likely) where a high school student (Lihle Ngubo) arrives at the home of a professor (Graham Hopkins) in preparation for her upcoming university entrance exam. They are familiar characters. He is the jaded and austere academic, and she is the keen and impressionable student. He sits at one end of the table (indicated by the Union Jack cushion) and she at the other.

Hopkins and Ngubo are a great team, maintaining the relentless pace the play demands, and deftly navigate its thematic twists and turns. In their best moments, they are able to hold entire conversations by playing with the tone and cadence of pedagogic jargon, which manages to go everywhere and nowhere all at once –  “and so on and so forth, etcetera, etcetera!”

Here and there, when she’s not fussing about in the garden or tidying up, Marie (Fiona Ramsay) passes through a scene, rummaging through the sideboard or kicking pots and pans around in the kitchen. Although she doesn’t feature as much as the others, Ramsay is a vital and consistent dose of humour in a story that oscillates wildly between playful absurdism and a more sinister surrealism. 

Seated at their respective ends of the table, the professor and student begin with basic arithmetic, and it all goes smoothly enough. It’s when they reach subtraction that things begin to fall apart. As much as she tries, the student cannot grasp the concept. Again and again she gets the basics wrong. For the professor, this is profoundly puzzling. For the audience, this is both humorous and exhausting. We are being tested, we realise, trapped in some increasingly absurd dynamic that’s growing more repetitive and nonsensical by the minute. By now, the heat in the theatre is palpable. We shift in our seats and endure.

They move onto the history of language – fertile ground for absurdism – and now the tone of the play is noticeably different. The student is suffering through a persistent and increasingly excruciating tooth ache and the professor, indifferent to her pain, presses on, abandoning his makeshift lectern and standing on the dining room table to deliver his litany of non-sequiturs.

Above us, and all around us, spotlights have begun to illuminate a series of academic robes, rising up like spectres, even in their stillness. The effect is profound. As we watch the student struggle to grapple with the futility of language, the burden of expectation and the heavy weight of history, the legacy of colonial education bears down on us, always.     

The pace picks up here and the dynamic between professor and student takes on a menacing tone. High, frantic moments drenched in red punctuate their interactions until we reach something of a collective fever-pitch – heat and pain and relentless sentiment – culminating in a sharp and sudden gesture, and a point of no return.   

With its broader focus on the legacies of colonial education systems, The Lesson naturally  makes sense on South African stages, but the script doesn’t always reflect the realities and attitudes of those making their way through the contemporary South African education system.

In its effort to critique, albeit successfully, the stubborn histories of privilege and power that have long-characterised academic institutions, The Lesson leaves little room to highlight the vital work being done by university and high school students (like the one in this play) to decolonise and reimagine spaces of learning in the country.   

The Lesson is on at The Market Theatre until Sunday 30 October 2022.   

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