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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Max Lewdendel (Assistant Director Romane Cayez), Designed by Christopher Hone, Costume Design Isabella Van Braeckel (Associate Costumer Designer Lucy Fowler), Sound designer Matt Downing, Video Designer and Creative Captioner Ben Glover, Lighting Design Stevie Carty, Fight Director Ronin Traynor, Magic Consultant Patrick Ashe.

Stage Managers Harry Faulkner and David McDade.

Senior Producer Dylan Frankland, Producers Ciara Wynne, Izzy Hayden.

Till July 23rd


In a world where liberal teaching is again under threat, one of Ionesco’s earliest absurdist plays The Lesson (from February 1951) seems timely enough.  A Professor – Jerome Ngonadi – twists eager Pupil Hazel Caulfield till she cracks; whilst all the while Julie Stark’s Maid emits frosty Cassandra warnings like weather reports. ‘Your health’ she warns the Professor. Whose health?

Add the Icarus Theatre Collective and you twist Ionesco’s metaphor round its anti-authoritarian roots back into absurdity. But by now any comfort in absurdity is sheer magical thinking. And we have magic consultant Patrick Ashe as part of a team that gives us a fifth wall, even if the play doesn’t lend itself to a fourth. Wholly appropriate.

In Christopher’s Hone set – all mid-century mahogany – large chair, tiny chair, plain table, collapsible bookcase to the left, reversible wooden panels give on to a wilderness of blackboards. That’s where video designer and creative captioner Ben Glover’s loosed upon them and words appear – magically – and vanish again as the surface allows actual chalk its say.

Very occasionally spoken dialogue varies but the effect naturally allows both the deaf community to follow – there’s a three-font usage to differentiate speakers – and for words to menace as signifiers. As they apparate, dance round the chalk ones that seem idées fixes, the manic threat of info overload becomes its own absurdity. Made chalk. Sheer oppression crushes the tiny ringed frills the Pupil in a last rash of spirit scrawls on the board herself.

It starts of course so differently, in Donald Watson’s fleet, faithful translation. And it’s set in period. Caulfield’s Pupil in wild excitement rings the doorbell too many times. Breathless she runs her hands over her body in barely contained arousal.  Dressed innocent in a short blue period skirt she embodies Isabella Van Braeckel’s costumes. They seem mid-century with a twist – the Professor’s beige trousers and shiny boots, more visible after he removes his gown, strike us as odd. The Maid’s all blue-severe: she’s the only one to keep her layers on.

Caulfield’s sheer elan engages from the start: it’s her gradual dimming kept up with sparks of compliance, defiance, of steely determination that varies what becomes a bell jar removal of all her oxygen. Even a shoe. There’s good reason this play’s become a classic ballet.

Stark’s Maid is Pupil’s only warning: she faintly heeds the frost, but sides with the Professor, who could clearly inspire her to anything. Despite Stark’s admonitions, Ngonadi’s all affable apology, complimentary on Pupils’ articulate rationales  for educating herself. But a Doctorate? He’s unfazed too. Ngonadi shifts from delight through bafflement, frown to frenzy in a believable incline. Roles we adopt are as performative as acting; clothes can speak us too. It’s a chilling recognition.

Pupil can’t actually subtract though – which is what the Professor, engaged but baffled starts with: and pre-school mathematics is where two articulate people stumble into Ionesco’s absurdist multiplier. When Pupil brilliantly answers a farcical multiplication it transpires she’s committed to memory all possible arithmetical multipliers to infinity. Admirable, if not arithmetic, but eagerness to please is brushed aside. When we move to philology Maid warns  this is where disaster will strike, and it’s all neo-Spanish roots from here. Stark assumes a monumental choric role, gaining a dimension at the end.

Directed by Max Lewdendel over ninety minutes Ionesco’s both humanised in this relatable unequal lesson, and more extreme. To Caulfield’s litanic, plaintive claims of toothache Ngonadi’s deaf, merely repeating it as an irrelevance, as he dons the mantle of all abusers – surely Ariel Dofrman’s Death and the Maiden owes something to this play. Soon Pupil aches all over. In an age not only of #MeToo but its recent partial defenestration in U.S. courts – this lesson’s not lost. Fight director Ronin Traynor calibrates coerciveness throughout as violence ratchets up into something Ionesco  has to jump-cut to.

Matt Downing’s sound stabs at civilisation as the Professor and Maid mime in turns putting on and (mostly Maid) taking off a vinyl record playing Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. Just occasionally (the second Prelude from Book 1) agitation matches action. The effect though is to mask the assault on order, mathematical absurdism lurking under a veneer of supreme mathematics. Tragedy becomes statistics. Stevie Carty’s lighting assumes the gleam and tenebrae of a Parisian apartment turned coliseum with a mangy lion.

You sense what might occur, not how. This production asks if this is absurdism by the very faithfulness of its dynamics, and the fourth-dimension of words written like prophets on black walls, balanced and finding themselves wanting.

Ngonadi’s excellent as a ratcheted man with a troublesome heart – heart you ask? As is Stark in her straitjacket role, only bursting her carapace in part at the end. Their roles are tacitly circumscribed we realise, a ritual. Caulfield as the fresh new individual is superb, carrying a beating heart into absurdity, warmth, pathos, a spirit extinguished – and terror. She slowly realises she too is being pressured into ritual victim. There’s a whiff of Rhinoceros ahead.

There’s a final flourish, a donning of something proleptic for Icarus: their Romeo and Juliet next year promises to take up the very theme this production ends on. The denouement’s comic moments then apotheosis backlights laughter as terrible, and as vanishing. Groundbreaking, superb, unmissable.