Interview: Max Lewendel, 'Leave reason at the door; come and enjoy the rollercoaster'

by Jim Keaveney

A mild-mannered professor takes on a new pupil, and swiftly descends into tyranny, becoming bent on her destruction - The Lesson is Eugène Ionesco's comically surreal exposé about power, knowledge and those who hoard both. 

Max Lewendel's production, playing at Southwark Playhouse from 29 Jun, enhances Ionesco's classic play through a bold projection design that features an exciting new Creative Captioning technology, supported by Arts Council England, ensuring that every performance is accessible for deaf and hard of hearing audiences as well as enhancing the creative story.

As he prepares for opening, we caught up with Lewendel to talk about the production.

Promotional image for The Lesson. Image credit: Bernadett Ostorhazi

Q&A with Max Lewendel

Hi Max, thanks for talking with us about your upcoming production of The Lesson at Southwark Playhouse. What can you tell us about the production?

The play is a wonderfully hilarious and devilishly dark fantasy.  On the simplest of levels, it is about a young pupil going for her first lesson with a wise, old professor.  She is a genius, able to add 1 to 1 without a calculator, but she stumbles on subtraction.  As the play unfolds, more surreal meaning emerges.

How important was the play’s exploration of knowledge and power in agreeing to take on the production?

Vital.  All our work has some sort of message about power and abuses thereof.  But we are entertainers first and foremost.  Come for the comedy and the catharsis.  Leave with something more than you may have expected.

The Lesson is a one-act play - does that make it more challenging to direct as you try to distill the play’s messages into a tighter running time?

The play’s running time is a blessing.  The challenge comes from the enormous amount of energy required to sustain what is effectively a single scene for 75 minutes, and keep the rollercoaster going throughout.  There can be no breath, no stagnation in the ride; we must keep the audience enthralled for 75 minutes and that’s quite a wonderful challenge.

Were you already a fan of Eugène Ionesco’s work before taking on the production?

Yes, definitely.  I first saw The Lesson in 1999 and was hooked on his work ever since.

How much has your directorial vision for the production changed throughout the pre-production and rehearsal period?

Immensely.  Creative Captioning was not a part of the concept originally, but it slotted in so well that it will be wonderful for all audiences, enhancing the feel we are trying to evoke with the play.  Otherwise, the overall feel and momentum of the piece is similar, but we’ve been blessed with an amazing cast and creative team that have all brought wonderful ideas and enriched the play in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Finally, how would you describe The Lesson to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

Leave reason at the door; come and enjoy the rollercoaster.

The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco runs from June 29 to 23 July.  For more information and tickets - www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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