/ 25 October 2022

New play demonstrates power of words – said and unsaid

Picture 2 The Lesson
Point of view: Graham Hopkins and Lihle Ngubo struggle with each other in The Lesson. Photo: Suzy Bernstein

Young meets old in a new staging of The Lesson, a classical play by the Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco, at the Market Theatre. New ideas of education confront the old in a jarring action by rising star Lihle Ngubo and seasoned actors Fiona Ramsay and Graham Hopkins.

The dining room setting of the Professor’s (Hopkins) house soon feels like a classroom as he is determined to teach the student (Ngubo) a lesson at whatever cost. In the original script Marie’s (Ramsay) character is the maid, and she intermediates the action from now and then. But in the South African setting she plays a role akin to the wife of the professor. I guess it would be hard to convince the audience otherwise in a context of a stubborn and persistent racial stratification of our country – an unlikely reversal of the roles.

What starts out as an innocent lesson on arithmetic by the teacher to the pupil turns out to be a sparring match made in hell as the learned professor opines on the methods rather than the science of the subject. The tension, for me, begins to rise as the pupil muses: “Er … three or four? Which is the greater? The greater number of three and four? In what way greater?”

According to the lesson plan, this is not the level that is expected from the student. She is punching way above her weight although her mentor condescendingly encourages her to study for all her doctorates. Yes, she wants to sit for all doctorates offered at the Ivory Tower at the tender age of eighteen. But she makes things uneasy by questioning the theory behind the teacher’s assumptions. While on the numbers game she asks: “The one that has the most will be the greatest? Now I understand, Sir, you are equating quality with quantity,” she says.

With a typical colonial mentality, the teacher denies the student her rich historical background and knowledge that she comes with at an educational institution, her collective knowledge reservoir that comes from her community. To the professor she is a tabula rasa ready to be uploaded with information for her own good.

This is where the dramatic arc reaches its apex, with toothaches choking the distressed pupil. As per the norm this affliction on the victim is also ignored and the patriarchal undertones of the professor are as clear as daylight, we see the harsh treatment meted out against the two women, with the African woman being at the lowest rung of his “me-first” world outlook.

There is also an assumption of inferiority on the part of the student as demonstrated by the frustration of the professor in one of the scenes: “No, that’s not right, not right at all. You have a constant predilection for adding up. But it is also necessary to subtract. Integration alone is not enough. Disintegration is essential too. That’s what life is. And philosophy. That’s science, progress, civilization,” he says. 

It is a classic case of power play where goalposts are shifted to fit the victors rather than the victims in master narratives. Thus, everything adds up when it suits the professor and subtracts anytime at his whim. 

At another point, the student manages to get a complex sum correct, to the dismay of the teacher. He thinks the pupil must now study for a partial doctorate as she is memorising the answers to equations. “Memory is a deadly enemy to mathematics, and though it has certain advantages, arithmetically speaking, memory is a bad thing … and so I’m not at all happy about you … that just won’t do at all,” he says. 

The play hits the right notes to debates about a new decolonial education. The current Western colonial discourse would want to erase any memory of workable solutions applied by the vanquished – their victories, their complex constructions, and their philosophies, in the name of science and modernity.

The original writer, the late Ionesco, is regarded as a leading figure in the history of French avant garde theatre, and he describes absurdity simply as “that which is devoid of purpose”. He has won several awards for his work including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1970.

Listen carefully: Fiona Ramsay making an incisive point in a new play at the Market Theatre The Lesson. Photos: Suzy Bernstein

The adapter of the new version, Greg Homann, is clear about the direction the play should take: “I’m interested in how the legacy of a colonial education system impacts students today. The national cry to decolonise education, and especially the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, have sharply highlighted the complexity of teaching and learning in a South African university. The Lesson is a theatrical way to represent and explore that politics,” he says in a press release.

Homann himself is an academic who has taught at drama schools including the Wits School of the Arts and AFDA. He studied text and performance at the King’s College London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year awardee is assisted by Market Laboratory graduate Nana Pooe in the director’s seat. The play is translated into English by Donald Watson.

For me, the play is a must-see since it can be viewed from multiple angles anchored on the destructive nature of a conquering project of imperialism and capitalism to unsuspecting nations and the working people. The innovative design by Wilhem Disbergen, who has just added a Fleur du Cap to his multiple awards, features scarlet gowns surrounding the auditorium which seem to ask a fundamental question: How many more should perish on the way through the vaults of a toxic lesson involving exploitation of the many by the few?

The combined years of experience of the cast and the director carry the work through. Hopkins and Ramsay have just finished a run of Hansard at the Theatre on the Square. The duo has collaborated on many other plays before, and it shows by the synergy they draw off each other during the performance.

And as the play ends with a new student, all geared up with a new backpacker, coming in to imbibe a lesson, we can only hope that her generation, somehow, will refuse to bow down to what is akin to slavery.

The Lesson runs at the Market Theatre until 30 October 2022. For bookings and more information go to www.markettheatre.co.za.