Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Max Lewendel: The Lesson

By | Published on Friday 24 June 2022

Coming to Southwark Playhouse this week is an acclaimed production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist one act play ‘The Lesson’, courtesy of Icarus Theatre Collective, who have already toured the show to the author’s homeland Romania. 

It sounded to me like a really engaging staging of the piece, and of course it has already had a very positive critical response, so I was definitely interested in finding out more about it. 

I spoke to Max Lewendel, director of the play, and Artistic Director of the company behind it. 

CM: ‘The Lesson’ is obviously a well-known work by a famous playwright, but for those who don’t know it, can you explain what the play is about? What story does it tell?
ML: 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 without a calculator, but she stumbles on subtraction. As the play unfolds, more surreal meaning emerges.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
ML: Though a comedy, the play explores themes of power, fascism and domination, and the cyclical nature of history repeating itself.

CM: Can you tell us about your version of it? How did you approach it? What did you want to achieve with this new staging of it?
ML: A very difficult question to answer. I suppose we approached it with honour and respect for the author’s original intention, while also realising that audiences today are different than they were 70 years ago, and also that we can be part of this ongoing change, to make theatre more open to a broader range of people.

We do this by embracing the design as an additional character on stage: projection, lights, sound and set all move and adapt in a gloriously choreographed, almost ballet-like display that works seamlessly with the cast.

CM: What made you decide you wanted to stage the play at this point in time?
ML: The messages of power abuse resonate more strongly today than they did ten years ago with the rise of an increasingly vocal coterie of fascistic leaders invading formerly democratic nations. No longer a warning on the horizon, the danger is now, and it is real.

CM: Why do you like the play?
ML: The depth of the text and poetry on the lines. Plus it’s funny as hell, and I still don’t know exactly why.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
ML: The cast are an amazing group of three of the most talented artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Special thanks to our Casting Director Harry Blumenau for helping us pull them together.

CM: You are using new captioning technology in the production – can you tell us more about that and the impact it has?
ML: Creative Captioning has slotted in so well with the other design elements that it will be wonderful for all audiences, enhancing the feel we are trying to evoke with the play. It will definitely sharpen the overall feel and momentum of the production. You will be able to see visually how the descriptions and sounds in the air are felt by the characters on stage, and this will bring you on a more visceral journey with them.

CM: Can you tell us about Icarus Theatre Collective and what it does? What are its ethos and aims?
ML: Our ethos is to embrace marginalised artists and put them at the top of our priorities as we create work that is there to enlighten, and always at the same time to entertain. We tend to specialise in dark drama, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. Whatever we do, our work will always exalt what it is to be human, how we connect with one another, and how we can learn from history.

CM: Shall we talk about you, now? How did you end up working in the arts? Did you always want this kind of career and what steps did you take to build it?
ML: Oh, I had no idea this is where I would end up. I was a very confused and troubled adolescent. I stumbled into theatre at eighteen, taking it as a major since I didn’t have any idea what else to do, having fallen out of love with my first passions, science and mathematics.

Six months in, I was hooked and knew I wanted to be a director. I spent the next three years absorbing all I could and flew to the theatrical capital of the world to try and make my way in London. It’s not been without its ups and downs, but today I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
ML: Bringing this play to Romania, the author’s homeland, and also stealing a week-long slot in Germany’s Globe Theatre from London’s Globe and headlining with a week of sold-out performances.

CM: What hopes and ambitions do you have for the future?
ML: To keep directing great plays, while working with great artists.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
ML: We’re setting ‘Romeo And Juliet’ in early Nazi Germany, joining a young daughter of the last wealthy Jewish family in Germany and a young boy misled by Nazi Youth to rebel against an increasingly totalitarian regime that will destroy everything they hold dear.

‘The Lesson’ is on at Southwark Playhouse from 29 Jun-23 Jul, see the venue website here for info and to book.

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Photo: Bernadett Ostorhazi