By Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Martin Crimp
Ionesco’s classic piece of theatre of the absurd is a satire on conformity and individualism. It can also be seen as an examination of the rise of totalitarianism and liberal society’s response to it. Going even further, it could be considered as a testing of the boundaries of liberal tolerance in face of a brutal destructive threat – a threat that at first seems ridiculous or even comical, but one which becomes worrying and finally threatening.
Given all this there’s an opportunity for Dominic Cooke’s production to not only tie the play to its original historical period but also to make more modern connections: there are, after all, many to made. Surely the purpose of a revival – particularly at a theatre such as The Royal Court – is to see what contemporary meaning and resonance can be drawn from a text.
The disappointment that it fails to do so is heightened by the fact that Martin Crimp’s translation is spikily modern and not especially tied to a French setting. Yet this staging is fairly traditional and the play is indeed set in France.
Despite these reservations, this is an always watchable production that raises laughs of recognition and occasional shocked disbelief. The tone also manages to move from the outlandishly ridiculous and comic towards something more disturbing. By the end things that would have been funny in the first half are no longer so. In fact they have become sinister not to say disturbing.
Benedict Cumberbatch makes for an engaging Berenger while the rest of the ensemble are fine particularly in the group scenes when the rhinoceroses first appear. Lloyd Hutchinson is an entertaining Botard – but quite why he is played as an Eric Morecambe like figure is puzzling.
The set falling apart and thus mirroring the disintegration of society provides a useful visual metaphor. The incidental music is apt, as is the soundscape of thundering rhinoceroses – which from time to time is appositely supplemented by the distant rumble of circle and district line tube trains.
Royal Court until 15th December