Gerry Mulgrew - The Lesson
A class of its own
The absurd comedy of Ionesco’s The Lesson still has the power to shock, as Gerry Mulgrew tells Mark Fisher
Gerry Mulgrew is a smart director, but when he’s in the rehearsal room he prefers to work from instinct. ‘I respond to Peter Stein when he says a director should have unlimited enthusiasm and absolutely no idea of what he’s going to do,’ says the man famed for his groundbreaking ensemble work with Communicado. ‘I’ve always started with a vague sensation of something and never decided that I’m going to do this or that interpretation. Rehearsals are a process of digging and searching for what’s there. You can prepare on your own, but it’s only when you start with the actors that you can see how to materialise it. Acting is not intellectual and I don’t believe you can direct well as an intellectual. It’s about bodies moving in space.’
The facility to trust his instincts will be a boon now he is tackling the work of Eugene Ionesco, that absurdist master for whom normal rules rarely apply. Drafted in by the Edinburgh-based Benchtours, Mulgrew is staging The Lesson, one of the early works of the French-Romanian playwright and one that, even after 50-odd years, still has an air of strangeness.
‘It’s crazy,’ says Mulgrew, fresh from directing the more cerebral Mother Courage and her Children at Dundee Rep. ‘It starts off pleasant and avuncular, rapidly gets really strange and ends up quite viciously.’
First seen in Paris in 1951, the one-acter is about a young student who is subjected to a warped private lecture by an elderly professor of linguistics while his concerned maid looks on. You could interpret it as a study in power relationships, an analysis of sexual domination or a treatise on the impossibility of communication. Or you could sit back and enjoy the surreal comedy of it all before things turn nasty.
‘It’s like the world you come from, but you don’t quite recognise the rules,’ says Mulgrew. ‘There’s a lot of apparent nonsense in it, but it has its own strict logic. It’s like one of those Beckett plays that are difficult to analyse, but you can’t leave them alone and they explode in your mind with a poetic power. The Lesson is about the power of language. Language gives the professor power, even though his knowledge sounds like complete gobbledegook. It seems to be connected with ideology; the way ideologies build up a body of their own language which becomes self-justifying.’
Written by the author who would go on to write The Chairs, in which an elderly couple set out a room for their imaginary guests, Rhinoceros, in which people turn into rhinos, and Amedee, in which a couple find a corpse in their matrimonial bed, The Lesson is an early example of the theatre of the absurd, a movement inspired by the existentialist philosophies of Sartre, Camus and others. But although such absurdist work was born out of an era of post-war politics, Mulgrew has no doubt The Lesson will continue to stand the test of time.
‘I remember I saw it about 25 years ago at the Edinburgh Festival and was knocked out by it,’ he says. ‘It had enormous power. It’s very funny but it has a really creepy ending. I see no reason why it’ll ever be abandoned.’
The Lesson, on tour, Sat 4 Oct–Sat 1 Nov. For full details see www.benchtours.com