13 November 2007

REVIEW: Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco

Royal Court Theatre

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London (26.10.07)

(On until December 15, 2007)

We're laughing from the first line of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros and thus the play's tone is set. As Act One evolves we are fooled into believing this will be a night filled with laughs and gaiety. However, by the time the last line is dealt by an emphatic Berenger (Benedict Cumberbatch) we are feeling quite the opposite and probably wouldn't have the urge to laugh at all.

The cleverness of Ionesco's work is in this playing with our emotions, taking us from one extreme to the other in the course of about two hours. It is a process which intensifies the play's inherent ambiguity. The comments made on the human condition, even nearly fifty years after the play was written, are disarming, especially as they become more obvious in Act Two. The verbose, convoluted way in which ideas are relayed puzzles even further and it is this state of slight bewilderment that makes Rhinoceros both so pertinent and so great. We come out of the theatre our minds utterly reeling, wondering what he was really trying to say. The beauty of it is that it can be something different for everyone.

Royal Court Theatre's production of Rhinoceros is very difficult to fault. All the performances are impressive. The actors (under the direction of Dominic Cooke) utilise that wonderfully exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-corniness, to which Ionesco's texts lend themselves so well, to create a parallel world in which it becomes totally acceptable for one's husband to "transform" into a rhinoceros. And why not?

Jean's "transformation" scene is superbly executed by the company and Jasper Britton's excellent performance must be mentioned. The makeup and masks (by Millenium FX) are brilliant and Anthony Ward's already impressive set is used cleverly and comically here (who knew a Rhinoceros would literally break through the set's wall right in front of our eyes?), but the piece de resistance is the rhinoceros itself. I must admit, I was expecting the rather monumental issue of depicting the rhinoceroses to be either skillfully avoided, subversively implied or poorly attempted. It was none of these. Jonathan Beakes' rhinoceroses are phenomenal; they are life-sized, -coloured and -shaped and I was blown away by how well they served their purpose both visually and thematically.

Indeed, as the play evolves the rhinoceros-to-human ratio begins to switch in favour of the former. Consequently, this initially ridiculous and highly laughable animal is the reason we (the superior beings?) are compelled to ask ourselves questions of race, human domination, perceptions of self and, ultimately, whether or not it is possible for us, as animals, to "refuse to conform".

A highly successful production that will keep you thinking for days and a nice reminder that very serious issues are best tackled when they don't take themselves too seriously.

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