The last time I saw Eugene Ionesco’s 1958/9 ‘absurdist’ play Rhinoceros, was in March 2005 courtesy of the Belfast based theatre company Kabosh. That was a brilliant production where the small audience huddled inside what was effectively a shed constructed inside of the Lyric’s rehearsal room. That production was taught and lean (at not much more than an hour), it didn’t have fancy sets, instead characters used models to illustrate scenes where necessary. I wrote at the time that the production was ‘a thrilling evocation of mass hysteria’.
The Royal Court’s new staging of the play, on their main proscenium arch stage, is not quite as sleek a creature and is also not particularly thrilling (though it is often very good). The play lasts a full two hours and thirty minutes (with interval), and although I was never actually bored by the play, I just knew that a reverential attitude towards the text is not always the best option (i.e. cut, cut, cut). As an aside, I’m not asking for plays to be necessarily short, I love a good three or four hours at the theatre, but only when that time is really justified. In fact I have previously object to the truncated nature of some contemporary plays, feeling that issues, characters or situations have not been fully allowed to develop, especially in order to fit a 90 minute (or less) time frame (don’t even start on Edinburgh, at least the Traverse and EIF stage full length plays). It it’s good, if it’s pertinent, we’ll watch it and maybe even enjoy it. Having said that, this concern of mine has faded in the last few months, as I’ve seen ambitious longish new plays (like Flight Path) and excellent short ones too (The Ugly One, also at the Court, and covering some of the intellectual ground of the Ionesco).
Back to Rhinoceros, the direction by Dominic Cooke is very good, and his cast first rate. The translation of the play is new, by Martin Crimp, and thankfully it is unobtrusive and natural sounding (absolutely not a given when it come to Mr Crimp). Benedict Cumberbatch (so persuasive in BBC2’s Stuart: A Life Backwards, last week) is excellent as Berenger, a lazy semi-alcoholic underachiever in a small provincial French town. Cumberbatch is a geeky, weary presence, he even looks ill at the right moments. Although he does not seem like an imposing physical presence at first sight, he does manage to impose himself on the largish stage, and his yawns are some of the most believable I’ve ever seen fabricated. Berenger’s friend, the nattily dressed Jean, is superbly portrayed by Jasper Britton. Britton always exudes intensity, and Jean is certainly that, he is almost obsessive compulsive about his appearance, but has a hint of physical menace about him too. When rhinoceroses start to rampage around the town, panic and dismay spreads, some people dismiss it as a fantasy, but as the animals become more and more prevalent, the trend can’t be ignored. Some dismiss the rhinos as harmless, but Berenger sees a more sinister and destructive side as more and more of his friends and colleagues choose to become one with them.
The play is quite clearly a parable, intended to warn of the dangers of Nazism, but most belief systems and all consuming ideologies could just as easily be substituted. In fact most basically the play is telling us to beware the heard mentality, to protect individuality (much like the admirable contemporary play currently upstairs at the Royal Court, The Ugly One, which I review in pervious posts). But Ionesco also has a message of resistance, rather than allowing people to freely choose these destructive values (and thereby possibly eventually imposing them on everyone), we should stand up to them (but how does this square with the rights of minorities to be different, is stamping out differences not just as bad as fascism anyway? I personally think not, but in the right circumstances, which is a rather woolly reply I know). In the play, Dudard, a colleague of Berenger tries to persuade him that the rhinoceroses are free agents, who should be able to do as they wish, harmless to them and other people. But amidst their passive resistance the phenomenon gowns and Dudard himself succumbs to the lure of the rhinos. I think this part of the play is important to take note of, because many plays today might bemoan social ills, intolerance or consumerism for example, very few actually advocate action (by that I mean proactively standing against something). And although Rhinoceros in by no means agit-prop, it does come from a person who witnessed the destructive forces of political extremism first hand, and it does suggest that action should be taken before things are too late. This sort of confrontational politics, or attitude, is not very fashionable today amongst the general public (despite populist causes like bashing hoddies and killing burglars, which is a slightly different thing). We like environmentalism, but not if we personally have to do anything, voting changes nothing (‘they’re all the same’); terrorism/fundamentalism/whatever is not our direct problem. And as for consumerism and the tyranny of body conformism/the beautiful people, I think most people talk rubbish about it, actually they directly lie to themselves even. Few people I have ever meet think they are in thrall to conspicuous spending, peacockery and basically showing their wealth/membership of a group/coolness. With looks it may be even worse; many women are still putting powder on their face, paint on their lips and fitting their feet into tiny shoes (almost reminiscent of Chinese foot binding in some cases) in order to leave the house. There is much that is wonderful about modern culture and our western society, and I think that Macmillan’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ line rings true today, but I also feel some social isolation from many of the mainstream trends, and especially from some of the less mainstream types I see at the theatre or in the arts, a clique worthy of the worst American high school musical meanies and no mistake. This might be going rather deep into my personal neuroses for a theatre review (‘oh! the terrible isolation!’), but I really do meet so many people with the most closed of minds when it comes to other people, but think they are the most open and welcoming when it comes to art, music, travel or whatever esoteric subject you might wish to name.
But back to the overall theme: just because the big ideological battles of the 20th century are well and truly over, and our consumerist society has prevailed, doesn’t mean that there are not big issues (and possible shifts of power) to be discussed and thought about in the 21st century (although I think they might creep up on us rather more subtly than deciding whether you are red, blue, pink or green etc).
Rhinoceros is a worthwhile play, it might not be as subtle as it could be, or as taught, but the production is good (well realised, but not over the top, design by Anthony Ward), the acting likewise and there are certainly many laughs to be had. Interesting to note that the same company will be performing The Arsonists (by Max Frisch) from November, in rep with Rhinoceros (should be good, with Ramin Gray directing).