A professor concealing a dark secretRobert Edwards

Here’s a question that’s been in my head all day leading to this show: how does one review what’s labeled as an absurdist play, a fictional piece in which the entire script is meant to be illogical? One does wonder how absurdist playwrights, such as Eugène Ionesco, are heralded as masters of the human condition if in theory they have the freedom to arrange words and ideas however they want and give the excuse that it can contain a metaphor on anything. With such an eclectic choice of a play, the Pembroke Players had the challenge of bringing this bizarre script to life with their own interpretation of what their show is meant to teach people. Did they succeed on bringing the words to life without switching off the audience?

Rox Middleton was striking as the neurotic professor; she succeeded in gradually changing her demeanor throughout, from a heavily stooped, overly stammering mess into a domineering malicious maniac. Louise Ayrton portrayed the student beautifully, again changing roles from a pompous scholar to a petrified victim in extreme inexplicable pain. I must say that her moans of pain, her writhing movements, and her pristine shoes digging across the wooden floor made it hard to watch at times. It’s admirable that she didn’t falter once throughout the end half of the play. Dara Solina Homer as the maid was mainly out of the picture, but her ‘good nature’ made things all the more mystifying towards the end. It’s still unclear what exactly the relationship between the maid and the professor is – the maid is clearly capable of disciplining the professor, but is also willing to see the good in her and help dispose forty bodies in a day (there’s no point asking yourself how that is possible if each lesson seems to be an hour each).

The Pembroke Players made the interesting choice of having the audience sit on both sides of the ‘classroom’, with minimal props barely taking up space in the middle (including a birdcage hanging from the ceiling that is never explained). This intimate setting brings the question of what exactly the role of the audience member is. Are we meant to be scrutinizing the student like professors as the lesson progresses? Are we meant to be mere students trying to understand what the professor is teaching (and failing miserably like the student)? Or are we simply meant to be an abstract entity representing the tension that plagues both entities in a difficult supervision? Maybe we’re meant to be all of these things. It was certainly hard to concentrate on the professor’s words when the student was in pain – although that may also be because I’m not much of a linguist.

Skimming through the thematic complexities of the dialogue (I’ll leave that to the literature students), what is the main message to take away from this? From a shallow perspective, it’s obvious that the teacher is killing all her students – but how? Is the professor’s dismissive nature of pain a metaphor for the competitiveness of education and the disregard for students as holistic beings? Or is the dialogue itself meant to illustrate that academic teaching in university is so different from that of high school, causing students to take a giant leap from basic concepts that can be grasped easily to overly abstract concepts that the student couldn’t possibly grasp in a few minutes. (That’s enough to ‘kill’ a student’s confidence.) How can the gradual pain coursing throughout the whole body be explained? The toothache could represent the student’s inability to make discussion with the professor because of the overwhelming nature of the information they’re expected to learn. The pain spreads as the student can’t grasp more and more information and they suffer in silence throughout the rest of the lesson. The maid reprimands the professor for being so brutal to her students and keeps warning her of going too far, and the cycle goes on and on as the ideology of education remains hard to change.

Some minor issues with the performance itself: I feel that the toothache dragged on for too long and the pain in the rest of the body should have manifested more gradually. Another issue is that if one did not know the ending of the play already, it was obvious towards the middle when the professor snarled “remember this until the day you die” to which the student whispers to herself: “until…the day I…die?” If the student hadn’t spoon-fed those words to the audience, the ending would have definitely been more shocking to witness.

But the main problem with this production is not the (captivating) way it was performed by the actors, but the choice of script. I appreciate more than the average person an artistic piece full of ambiguity, because it illustrates creativity as its maximum when the artist lets go of their limits. However…what was the lesson I learnt here? I’d genuinely be interested to see what the director learnt from doing this production. Was it supposed to take such a long time to piece the dialogue together and ponder on its meaning, or was one supposed to shrug their shoulders and take it as an experimental piece in which nothing should be taken seriously? The only thing I can say with certainty is that this play left me with questions lingering in my head, and not in a comfortable way. Hang on – did I just walk out of an hour-long supervision?