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Justin Murray

Review: THE LESSON at the Old Red Lion Theatre

The Lesson Gracia Rios Calderon’s one-woman show The Lesson appears this month as part of ORL’s Where Are We Now? season, having previously featured in Lexi Clare’s Maiden Speech festival last year.

A one-woman clown show in Spanish and English (where there is text at all) exploring issues of sex education, gender norms, and consent, through the language of clown and physical comedy.

Part of the piece is framed as a trippy sex education class, where Calderon teaches us all the odd lessons we learn as kids about sexual ethics (the publicity blurb frames it as Spanish sex education, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be applied to all of Western society). But there’s also the threat of something closer to home lurking in the spaces of the piece. Something the performer is suppressing…

As we enter we’re asked how comfortable we are with audience participation, and invited to sit further forward or back depending on our preference. There’s something a little suspect about this approach to audience interaction. The job of the show, surely, is to take us all on a journey with it? The risk would be that the piece becomes a segregated experience, where those in the front row comfortable with audience participation experience a different show from those who said they weren’t. It rather goes against the spirit of the Red Bastard-type bouffon who provoke and challenge audiences, wherever they choose to sit. Whether this is Calderon’s choice or the venue’s, it feels a bit of a misstep.

In the first thirty seconds we are invited, by the ever-present, antagonistic, unbelievably creepy Siri-voice who periodically talks to Calderon and us, to do a series of things to Calderon’s body in the box: touch it, clean it, etc. It’s a lovely way of theatrically establishing the female body as the object on which laws and taboos are written. However, unless we’re feeling extremely brave or are the performer’s friends, we unfortunately haven’t been placed in a situation where we feel empowered or given licence to stand up and go closer. Perhaps this is the point, but it wasn’t one I was entirely clear on the point of.

Things pick up once Calderon has unfolded out of her box, and can interact with us as an audience as a whole. Many of the skits and games that follow are by turns very funny or squirm-inducingly unsettling, often with very little space between one and the other. One sequence which takes place almost entirely in the dark with illumination only by torches is particularly effective.The clown work (in my non-expert judgement) is excellent - her sense of timing well-tuned for maximum reward. There’s great play with rhythm. At certain points, I could even have stood to see more from certain games with the audience - taking the bag off her head, for instance, is a major transactional moment that I was ready to have more of a negotiation over. I also felt as if we could have stood to have the entire piece in Calderon’s mother tongue - most of the English text could have been comprehensibly rendered in Spanish.

It also feels a little as if it stops at the point where it gets interesting, as if we had finished the second act and felt slightly like it finished at the end of the second act, like there was further to develop and more nuance to find in the topics mentioned. Nonetheless, at only 40 minutes long it’s a concentrated, playfully constructed, burst of caustic rage. In making the piece Calderon performs ownership of her body and encourages the other women in the audience (and the rest of us as well) to do the same.