[This is a #TwoReviews™ Review - Two different reviews of the same performance]
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Rhinoceros by Catherine Carnie
Rhinoceros by James O'Brien
For David Greig (Artistic Director of the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh) the morning after the Brexit referendum was a moment of discombobulation – he felt odd … “as odd as if a Rhino had just galloped across Festival Square”.
The Lyceum’s revised Edinburgh Festival 2017 production of Eugene Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS, performed by a vibrant, fizzing, knowing cast, lit sensitively and seductively by Chris Davey to Oguz Kapalangi’s mesmerising and jolting soundtrack (released on an album on 9th March) evokes Craig’s sense of discombobulation. This stunning production holds a mirror up to ourselves and our 2018 world.
RHINOCEROS is set in a small village in France. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, its citizens begin to turn into Rhinos. Written post WWII, the play references social and political life in Romania on the eve of the war whilst exposing human beings’ desire to conform and the attraction of ideologies that promote aggression and control.
Murat Daltaban (Director) of DOT Theatre Company, Istanbul and Zinnie Harris (adaptor) Associate Director at The Traverse, have combined their east/west/north/south sensitivities and perspectives to create a multi layered nuanced piece which invokes otherness, tolerance, perspective, rights and prejudices.
When we meet Robert Jack’s compelling Berenger he is disheveled, guano splattered and hung-over. He does, however remain loyal – and admirably – is hungry to be himself. He is the single character who does not capitulate to group think and be swayed by the mob.
Both Mayra Mcfadyen and Sally Reid portray their sexist and repellent male employers with aplomb and Natalie Arle-Toyne and Jessica Hardwick energise and expose the erotic forceful strength and final brutality of their female characters.
Esin Harvey’s sophisticated and oozingly European Housewife (owner of the cat which is the first victim of the Rhinoceros’ trample) stages what might have been an absurdist enactment (given the classification of Ionesco as a practitioner of the theatre of the Absurd) when the play was written, but today could be seen as a norm – a cat funeral.
Tom Piper’s set, replete with chairs, frames, mirrors and shoes, whilst referencing Ionesco’s masterpiece – THE CHAIRS - reminds us to examine ourselves and consider what life is like in someone else’s boots. The high white walls with prison cell like windows enforce claustrophobia in the characters and audience alike - we are all alone with our self and have to deal with and confront who we are.
Davey’s colour washes of golden, red and green light add layers of political nuance to the various rhinoceros’ tramplings - evoking Romania’s green Iron Guard and France’s red communist fervor.
Harris’ text addresses sexism, racism, worker’s rights, conformity, addiction to alcohol and technology and is peppered with sound bites we currently read and hear daily … “ Fake News”, “We have to think of ourselves”, “It’s the law of the jungle”, “no stopping them – they’re gaining momentum”, “we must move with the times”, “they all look the same” …. all delivered to a soundtrack of Turkish atonal tones, Red Army male voice choirs and the odd Hendrix guitar riff . We are watching our own times through an absurd lens.
The audience loved it! I loved it! Go see!
★★★★★ | 5 stars
The Theatre of the Absurd appears now as a quaint form of realism in the phantasmagorical morass we are experiencing as a culture. The philosophical, political and societal metamorphosis we find ourselves re-navigating on a daily basis serves to remind us of the prescience of Eugene Ionesco’s play “Rhinoceros”.
The Lyceum’s revised Edinburgh Festival 2017 production, directed by an on fire Murat Daltaban, Theatre Dot (Istanbul) from a fiercely contemporary, knowing and visionary adaption by Zinnie Harris, transcends the fixed historical imperative of absurdist theatre and hurtles us into the quintessential problem of modernism in relation to the rise of mass movements.
From the bare bone of Ionesco’s dystopia, a relatively peaceful community rubbing along well enough, work, friendship, love, relationships, cod philosophising, boozing, flirting, is blindsided by the arrival of the Rhinoceros as an incubus in the body politic of a small community.
Tom Piper’s sublime set design positions the town square as the public space of the demos. The design initially appears to references Kafka’s “The Castle” as the city walls loom large as a protective, but also incarcerating arena where ‘outsiders’ are frowned upon.
Piper creates a necroscape of truncated public spaces and claustrophobic, tectonic interiors, where the public and the private are played out in ever shifting tones of monochromatic taint. The ingenious design is a multi-functional representation of a state of mind in a society collapsing in on itself.
The totality of the conflicting environments is lit with consummate artistry by Chris Davey and subtly underscored by the soundscape of Oguz Kaplangi, channelling a mittel European sensibility via Istanbul via a dash of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” in a unique fugue of unresolved dissonance.
A cat is killed, trampled to death by the unknown; there is a vague sense of unease at the revelation that it was a rhinoceros which did the trampling. Amidst much angst and speculation, deep fissures begin to appear in the townsfolk traditional perspectives. Something is happening and an irresistible energy seems to be consuming the common sense of the once cohesive community.
Zinnie Harris ratchet’s up the sense of otherness, the different, the confusion and uncertainty where the Logician (a profound Harry Ward) confounds and obfuscates the nature of the problem in a tirade of obscurity, outrage and anger. Harris forensically displays the acceleration from complacency to violence in a marvellously nuanced accretion of fear and dread.
The townsfolk are rattled, revealing the main strength of the ensemble in depicting how quickly cohesion falls to pieces in the ‘new times’. The old orthodoxies and canards are sacrificed to the exigencies of the ‘now’ moment, the ‘now’ movement; they start fighting amongst each other and the superficial comradery of the unchallenged hegemonies soon gives way to more sinister repressions and aspirations.
When the rhinoceros appear again and again, their numbers proliferating, they display an infectious, seductive alternative reality. This is based on the comfort of the mob, the energy of unbridled liberty and a sexual freedom undreamt off in their repressed conformist community. This is the territory of Wilhelm Reich’s “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” a vivid undercurrent Harris navigates with Mrs Bouef (a driven and passionate Natalie Arle-Toyne) when she abandons reason to experience a ravishing by her reborn husband, rebooted as a raunchy Rhinoceros. Caution is thrown to the wind as she/us/they are last seen riding to oblivion on the back of the Beast.
Robert Jack’s outstanding rendition of Berenger acts as a reflecting glass to the sensibility of the townsfolk. His breezy affability and livewire, engaged citizenship is portrayed as a counterweight to the dull pomposity and self- importance of the town’s characters; the grocer and his wife (Myra McFadyen and Sally Reid sparkling, repressed amiability) the housewife (Esin Harvey elegant vacuity) the confused old fellow (John Cobb) the gobshite Logician (Harry Ward) curdling the minds of the people with concepts beyond their comprehension. He logically creates a void which the rhinoceros obligingly fills.
Berenger valiantly kicks against the pricks and believes that love/humanity/citizenship will prevail against the encroaching darkness of the popular will; to revert to the negation of what it is to be human. Berenger will never “…learn to live with them” and the die is cast. He will stand alone, with Daisy, he will eschew the rhinoceros and despite their abysmal encroachment, love will transcend the trough. He believes. As the music of the rhinoceros’s march enchains the minds of the people to a merry dance of death.
A pivotal and masterly evoked scene is when Berenger visits John to apologise for the previous day’s argument occasioned by a disagreement as to the nature of the ‘beast’. This is Ionesco’s poignant attempt to represent reason, compromise and a genuine respect for friendship and shared values. This scene cruelly and gloriously subverts Berenger’s slow awakening to the horror which is about to be unleashed.
A rather depleted Jean is paralysed by the ennui of his previous night’s debauch. The simple minimalistic lines of his room, the humped figure swathed in a sheet, hints of Orson Welles’s Advocate in his version of Kafka’s “The Trial”, the isolating mirror, the singular white, hard chair, belies the crucial power of this transitioning scene.
Jean’s self-justification is underpinned by a powerful and eloquent descent into the realm of the masses and Steven McNicoll’s achievement is in the bold narcissism he renders coherent with his atavistic roars, beseeching animalistic tic’s and transforming psychological intensity.
When the man/beast enters the bath and begins to smear himself with the white residue of the truly lost, it was reminiscent of Brando’s “The Hollow Men” scene from “Apocalypse Now”. An incredible coup de theatre renders an attempt to legitimize to a transfixing abasement; the end of ‘civilising’ humanity, and the advent of the primal trampling boors as witnessed in our recent history.
I wanted Jean/Rhinoceros to roar from the bath as the white emulsion immured him. I wanted him to be a King Kong figure beating his chest from the bath as he ascends to the Nietzschean Gods. Instead he ambles off stage in his jim jams looking a bit sheepish. Maybe it was a Brechtian device but it deflated the accumulated vibrancy of the rhinoceros delusion, a masterful scene ending on a flat note rather than the rising crescendo of totalitarian cretinism.
This all embracing cretinism is beautifully observed and enacted when Berenger (an increasingly animated and authentic Robert Jack) and Daisy (a beguiling mix of steel and sexy coquettishness, Jessica Hardwick) finally finds them together. Dudard (Harry Ward) has already succumbed and the putative lovers are faced with their diminishing options.
If Totalitarianism is lived loneliness then the sad correlation is the death of intimate functionality. If loneliness is a complex and unpleasant response to isolation then the comfort of the herd offers a different type of thwarted gratification. Orwell understood this in “1984” and Berenger and Daisy’s ‘seduction’ is neatly subverted to act as an emotional counterpoint to the raucous external world, a world of simplistic unity and shared bestiality.
Daisy and Berenger’s process of copulation is awkward and touching, juxtaposed by the external orgiastic choral confidence as evinced by the ‘music’ the Rhinoceros hordes render in the place of intimacy. It is superficially very seductive and both Daisy and Berenger recognise its power, Daisy, fatally so.
Daisy’s capitulation is a powerful endgame of ferocious intensity. Her transition is doubly disturbing in that the lure of the herd overrides her desire for Berenger. It also necessitates her humiliating Berenger sexually so she can justify a deeper desire to fulfil her destiny with the animals, to run with the rhinoceros abandoning all pretence to civilisation as her human values lie, like the cat (Oguz Kaplangi) trampled in the dust.
Berenger’s final valediction, now he is isolated and cut off from the community who have all succumbed to the ‘music’, is a rousing and terrifically nuanced paean to what it means to be human. He recognises that he “…is the minority now” and as he spots the Logician’s hat bestrode a rampaging rhinoceros; he knows the herd mentality has prevailed for now.
Like Patrick McGoohan’s prisoner, Berenger articulates the existential dilemma of being human in the midst of lunacy. “I am a Human being…I am the last man and I am not changing,” it is a brave and ultimately futile gesture. In order for us to regain and retain a manifestation of humanity we will have to change and unite to oppose the forces of darkness, stupidity and venal opportunism as represented, literally and metaphorically, by the genius of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, inspirationally served by Daltaban’s definitive vision. A must see production.
★★★★★ | 5 Stars