As The Lesson begins, a body sits perfectly still in a box surrounded by darkness. A voice-over informs us that ‘this is a body. This is a female body’. It accounts for her physical features and then invites the audience in attendance when the show was recorded to touch and paint the body. Don’t worry, we are assured that they have consent. The body eventually comes to life and what unfolds is a powerful indictment of sex education and power structures in Spain that is simultaneously rife with dark humour.
Presented as a lesson to a tiny doll-version of herself, performer and writer Gracia Rios explores issues around sex, the harassment that women experience on a regular basis, and eventually the struggles faced by women when they try to come forward about rape. These issues are primarily aimed towards Spain’s issues with consent, but they can just as easily be applied to Britain as well – especially in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder.
It feels strange to blend clowning with such a serious subject matter, but Rios manages to maintain this balance well for the most part. Rios is clearly a talented physical comedian and her movements and expressions are all perfectly executed to maximise impact, both in regards to comedy and tragedy. She humorously invites audience members on stage to demonstrate how to correctly apply a condom and rate sex positions; the show was recorded pre-pandemic and its nice to remember when we could actually do that. As she does so, Rios maintains a playfully mischievous grin throughout and bounces off their nerves and discomfort with ease.
This discomfort is prevalent throughout, and palpable even through a screen. There’s a childishness to the performance that is greatly unsettling, but that never makes what is being discussed any less thought-provoking. Most importantly though, Rios’ antics never feel reductive, nor as though they are making light of other people’s suffering. Rather, Rios uses the clowning as a medium to reflect the silliness of the standards that women are held to. That said, there’s a pervading sense of darkness throughout the piece that you can’t shake off, and you never stop wondering when the penny will drop. When it eventually does though, it makes for a poignant and powerful climax, although Rios’ righteous fury does feel somewhat lessened by the online format.
Being a recording of a live show, there are some audio issues that inevitably arise. At times the sound reverberates off the walls giving the sound an oddly tinny quality and making it difficult to hear Rios and the voice-over. It’s a forgivable minor issue though, and fortunately there are subtitles which solve this problem for the most part. These subtitles also provide helpful translation of certain Spanish phrases and idioms that crop up, which is a nice touch.
Just shy of 40 minutes , The Lesson feels as though it could be a tad longer. Rios covers a lot of ground and there are times when it feels as though there’s too great a focus on the clowning to be as impactful as one might like. Of course, this would perhaps come at the cost of being seen as too preachy. An additional five or ten minutes might rectify this and help make what is already a poignant blend of comedy and fury all the more powerful.