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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Rhinoceros
Royal Court Theatre Autumn-Winter 2007

Eugene Ionesco's 1960 play is a darkly comic satire of (depending on how you choose to read it) conformity, fascism, faddism or just the shallowness and fragility of most people's humanity.

This revival, with a new translation by Martin Crimp, retains the play's ambiguities of interpretation, and director Dominic Cooke presents it with a light touch that hints at each of these readings without pushing too hard at any, and keeps the experience enjoyable throughout.

A small French town inhabited by an amusing mix of colourful characters is astonished to find a rhinoceros galloping through its streets. Then there are two of them, then more, and soon we discover that it is the humans of the village who are changing, evidently by choice, into the beasts.

As the rhino numbers increase (and human numbers fall), we watch as several different sorts of people join the rhino ranks for different reasons. An aesthete who has disdained those around him finds an outlet for his anger and hatred, a socialist for his hidden feelings of inferiority. A liberal convinces himself that the majority can't be wrong, a social butterfly just can't hold out against fashion, and so on.

In the midst of this is Ionesco's Everyman, who eventually becomes Onlyman. Benedict Cumberbatch plays him as the sort of amiably alcoholic wanderer-through-life who only exists in fiction, but that proves to be an excellent key to the character and the play.

Ultimately, what the play is about is humanness and humaneness, what it is that makes us different from the beasts and whether those things are worth retaining. Ionesco lets us see that each of the characters who opts for transformation is attracted by the opportunity to reject his humanity, whether through immersion in unreasoning instinct, brute force or a herd mentality.

Making his confused hero have comical trouble enough coping with ordinary life is Ionesco's way of saying that the essence of being human is that it is messy and confusing - that's why the easy answers of the Marxist or the logician were no protection.

And making him hold out as much because he's having trouble grasping it all as from any special quality helps make the very Samuel Beckett-ish point that survival lies in the essence of humanness - with the Ionesco-ish proviso that we do not voluntarily give up our humanity.

Along with Cumberbatch, there are strong performances by Paul Chahidi as the liberal and especially Jasper Britton as the aesthete, who is set the challenge - which he meets - of seeming transforming himself into a rhinoceros before our very eyes.

Rhinoceros runs on its own through October, and then in repertory with Max Frisch's The Arsonists, with the same cast.

 

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Rhinoceros - Royal Court 2007