Only once in my life did I have to teach fifteen year olds. I was in my early twenties and found it scary. They are hormones on legs with negative attention spans. I can only imagine what it is like to teach a roomful of socially dysfunctional adolescents. This is the task facing young Zoe in John Donnelly's THE KNOWLEDGE, one of the two plays on education in repertory at the Bush Theatre.
The new teacher, Zoe, has trouble controlling her class and isn't quite in control herself. She admits that she was a troublemaker in high school and still has an adolescent's hunger for booze, dope and sex. Like many young women, she feels alternately defensive and insecure in the boys club she has joined -- her teaching mentor and headmaster are male and not politically correct in their treatment of her. Her students are a nightmare. One boy is a sociopath, another manipulative. The two girls seem more redeemable. All the students are obsessed with sex and asserting some sort of power over their territory. We watch Zoe make some dreadful personal and professional mistakes and lose the trust of the students. This is BLACKBOARD JUNGLE for the twenty-first century, but without the virtuous teacher and the good African-American to defend him. You witness the teacher's nightmare of a classroom spinning out of control. Donnelly does a superb job of shifting our sympathies as the play progresses. The seemingly nice people eventually don't seem so nice and the cynics are eventually shown to care. Zoe turns out to be the biggest troublemaker, more like her students than she wants to admit.
The Bush is a tiny space, so a powerful play like this is almost painful to watch. The theater is set up as an arena and the stage seems at times like a boxing ring. Actors sit with the audience when they are not onstage. Charlotte Gwinner's production is nicely staged and paced and captures the intensity of the script. The cast is uniformly excellent. Joanne Froggatt whom I loved in tv's DOWNTON ABBEY captures the light and dark sides of Zoe. She's a tiny woman, but when she lashes out viciously at one of the students one almost cringes. The four young actors playing the students are suitably intense, particularly Joe Cole, playing the hostile Mickey. He has very light blue eyes that seem to bore through the other characters. Handsome Christopher Simpson plays the science teacher as a cool man on the make until his sense of right and wrong are challenged. Andrew Woodall is properly droll as the cynical headmaster counting the days until his retirement.
I look forward to seeing the other play in this cycle.
THE KNOWLEDGE. Bush Theatre. February 10, 2010.