A cruel, timeless lesson at Rawabet

Daily News Egypt
5 Min Read

Three new one-act plays made their debut last Monday at the independent Rawabet Theater: “Hallucinations at the Post Office, “The Buffet and, most exceptional of the three, “The Lesson.

Based on Romanian/French dramatist Eugene Ionesco’s 1951celebrated play; the performance centers on three characters: Pupil, Professor, and Marie the maid, the only character given a name.

The play is set in a small Parisian flat that belongs to a middle-aged mathematics professor. The Pupil doesn’t take the Professor seriously, and he grows enraged with her apathy. Meanwhile, the Pupil becomes meeker.

The continuous push and pull between the two intensifies, leading to unexpected, shocking consequences.

The 45-minute long Arabic rendition by Emad Ismail (Professor), Doaa Hamza (Pupil), and Lana Moshtak (Marie) is an accomplished, superbly acted play. The rhythm and pacing capture the intensity of Ionesco’s original text, while the chemistry between the more experienced actor Ismail and Hamza, in her first role, is vibrant in every sense of the word.

The relational dynamics between the Professor and the Pupil are rather complex. The Professor is an impatient and aggressive math/language teacher – a possible symbol of violent, uncompromising, and controlling authority – and the Pupil is the bored drip (almost an autistic savant) who finds it easier to memorize the answers to all the possible multiplications than to creatively think of different solutions and methods.

Throughout, the Pupil gets increasingly bored but remains committed to taking the lessons. She fidgets in her chair, rocking it at some point to complain from a toothache for nearly 10 minutes, which makes the audience wonder if she’s truly not comprehending the lesson or deliberately tormenting her Professor.

Communication has, and still is, one of the biggest hurdles to education worldwide and that’s why “The Lesson is still relevant today with its universal appeal. The events of the story initially follow a natural, sensible course before radically veering towards the absurd without changing the mood or breaking the emotional unity of the story. The final effect is beguiling, liberating the audience from the firm confinement of reality while accentuating its absurdity.

Director Ahmed Hussein does a brilliant job directing his actors in a simple yet aesthetically stimulating way. Hussein told Daily News Egypt that he prefers Ionesco’s work – an iconic figure in theater of the Absurd movement that started in the late 40s – to Samuel Beckett’s because the latter is “too dark. The former is “much lighter in content if not too light; tragi-comic yet not hopelessly morbid.

The pupil is, in fact, the 40th victim to suffer from the abundance of information taught to her mechanically. The background of the study room contains a metallic net with over 10 different kinds of clocks, all of which look old. The clocks emphasize time that designates boredom, futility and Ionesco’s fear of death.

One major problem with Hussein’s direction though is that the performances of his actors are more realistic than suggestive, robbing the show of the underlined subtext. The decision to render the play in colloquial Arabic, taken from the classic fusha (classical) translated text of the play, wasn’t a wise choice. Several chunks of the dialogue simply sounded odd and contrived.

Ionesco didn’t believe life is meaningless. He did dismiss the materialistic world, deeming it a void with complex, false social codes. Through his work, he invited the audience to look beyond the mundane, beyond the absurd, to find meaning outside the realms of the mind.

Had the Professor been more imaginative and tolerant, the Pupil could have understood the lesson. The Pupil’s reaction isn’t the only natural response to the Professor’s method, but perhaps a subtle attempt to rebel against an entire system.

“The Lesson is part of the 2 B Continued Laboratory & Festival funded by Studio Emad Eddin Foundation and Orient Productions. The festival was conceived to give young theater artists a chance to nurture their talents under the guidance of professional mentors. The foundation will start accepting applications from writers, director and dancers for the second edition of the festival next October.

Catch “The Lesson at Rawabet Theater, 3 Hussien El Maamar St., Downtown, Cairo, tonight at 8 pm. Tel: 010 551 9208.

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