The Knowledge (pantsguys Productions in assoication with The Spare Room) runs at the New Theatre in Newtown from 10 October - 3 November 2012. By John Donnelly, directed by Rebecca Martin.
I found The Knowledge a difficult play. It is hard to work out what it is about. On the surface, it seems simple: it is about education, about teachers, about students, about a new teacher with difficult students who makes a colossal mistake. Director Rebecca Martin writes that it is play not just about school but about people, with real characters who are not ciphers for a message. I agree with her here – the characters are certainly not ciphers – but it is hard to work out exactly what the play is trying to say. It is a small story in the guise of a large one, and I think I wanted it to be a bit more ambitious than it was.
Zoe (Silvina d’Alessandro) is a newly graduated teacher who has fled a difficult breakup and finds herself teaching a group of impossible students citizenship (a subject in which she is certainly not an expert). These students are incorrigible troublemaker Mickey (Benjamin Ross), unsure, defensive Sal (Isaro Kayitesi), brazen, aggressive Karris (Karli-Rae Grogan), and sensitive poet Daniel (John Benda). Zoe is desperate to establish a rapport with them and to prove herself worthy to well-meaning but ultimately patronising headmaster Harry (Barry French) and her learning mentor Maz (Brett Rogers), but makes a terrible mistake one night and is unsure what to do next.
The notion of whether or not someone is a good person is one that percolates throughout the play, and is ultimately asked of all the characters. However, I felt like the answers should have been (and were probably intended to be) more ambiguous than they were. Any sympathy I felt for Zoe was well and truly eradicated in the second act, when she becomes Machiavellian and conniving, as well as cruel, petty, and unable to own up to her own mistakes. Maz, with his lewd talk about his students, is also unlikeable, and hard to take seriously when he attempts to take the moral high ground (though it must be noted here that Brett Rogers did a fine job in making his character as sympathetic as possible). Harry is a laughingstock: he is the font of most of the humour in the play, but one feels like you are laughing at him, not with him. If the play is meant to be a savage indictment on the education system, it succeeds, but if so, it is ultimately very depressing: there is no alternative offered, no hope for the future. If Zoe “can teach”, is a good teacher, then one shudders to think what a bad one looks like.
Some of the characters felt two dimensional. Some of the responsibility for this lies with the writing (the character of Sal, for example, is given very little room for development, despite the best efforts of actor Kayitesi), but some lay at the doors of the actors. Some of the performances were quite one-note, particularly the performance of Grogan as Karris, and others were very believable in parts and yet almost wooden in others – d’Alessandro’s performance as Zoe suffered from this. Several of the actors really struggled with their English accents, and I felt the show as a whole suffered from it: it made their performances seem very laboured. I must commend, however, Benjamin Ross for his performance as Mickey, which was nuanced and layered. He exposed just enough of the bully’s vulnerable underbelly to make the character seem like a real person.
The Knowledge is an engaging show. At two and a half hours, it’s probably a little long, but I was never bored. However, I feel like it needed better definition, better clarification. I understand that it was ultimately about people and not education as a whole, and was certainly not intended to be didactic, but I felt like it needed to be clearer about what it was trying to say.