Performed in the Unicorn Theatre 28 - 31 March 2012
by Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Martin Crimp
Eugene Ionesco's success with One-Act plays in the Theatre of the Absurd days of the early sixties, led him to develop a few remarkable full-length plays. Rhinoceros extends the metaphor that we are all predisposed to want to be like our fellows unthinkingly, like charging beasts, into a narrative exploration. Our 'Everyman' (Bérenger) consciously decides what is appropriate for him. The play seems pessimistic about the freewill/determinism alternatives until the very last moments. The stark revelation that all we really have is our own perceptions, that there can be no faith in reference to others, education, logic or science, leaves the play's hero finally aware that he does have a choice. He starts his journey confessing that "Being alive makes me anxious" to his friend Jean who enjoins him to conform, smarten himself up and 'be like him'. A conversation between a logician and an admiring disciple takes place simultaneously - analysing syllogisms. Ionesco lampoons the linguistic philosophy. A charging rhinoceros interrupts the discussions. Almost disbelieving their eyes, they end up disputing whether it had one or two horns! A girl's pet cat is trampled to death. The tragedy and her preoccupation, shared by the townspeople, is grieving the loss of a disembowelled beloved pet. Within one scene, we distrust the evidence of our eyes, our language and our cultural inheritance. What else is there? Well there is love. Bérenger is less alarmed by the charging animal than he is at being seen at 'not-his-best' by a woman to whom he is secretly attracted.
In the following scene - life goes on, daily work routines reduce the extraordinary events to gossip, the sceptics who did not witness them demand proof, and a familiar 'blamegame' has the characters reverting to type. The union man suggests the husband who has become a rhinoceros should not have been dismissed without due process; the lawyer says changing into an animal is good grounds for divorce, and the boss does not see why the needs of commerce should be slowed down by a mere catastrophe. Perhaps 'it all came from the colonies' as is suggested later! The third phase of Bérenger's journey has him trying to make amends for falling out with Jean who is already metamorphosizing. In the final act three humans remain, the arguments are developed and the play concludes, quite unexpectedly, with hope and confidence that we all have within us the power to resist.
Michael Ward's brilliant set design establishes the play's symbolic nature; a two-storey shapeless edifice adorned with Greek, mathematical and arbitrary symbols provides entrances and exits on to the stage. A mural which might be a town map or the microscopic illumination of a pachyderm's skin is enigmatically central and challenging. The stage is lit starkly and forebodingly with accompanying dramatic sound effects. The actors use all the stage part of the auditorium. The play is within us, around us, among us.
Bérenger, despite being told, "The world doesn't revolve around you!" - has to be consistent and credible throughout the play for the audience to feel the comfort of identifying with someone/something. Ward is memorably able to achieve this. He is always our reference point, our touch of normality. He takes us with him through his odyssey - courageously and with flawless theatrical skill. Act three is a huge triumph of brilliant acting as Jean, played by Jon Crowley and Bérenger face up to the main dilemma. Crowley's gradual and accelerating descent into 'rhinoceroshood' is wonderful to watch. The manic delusions are so nearly infectious, the entire audience might join him!
For me the weakness of the play is that the high drama of Act Three with its amazing shock theatrical effects is not surpassed in the dénoument. Act Four, though more sophisticated, is an indulgence for the playwright, too carefully pointed and unnecessarily precise. The acting of some of the play's most demanding speeches by Andrea Mardon, John Hawkins and Michael Ward is well measured and convincing and it needs to be. It is a great tribute to Liz Adam's direction, that the scene succeeds in engaging us.
Her deft touch is especially noticed in the group scenes; Ionesco's script (in a very good new translation by Martin Crimp, celebrating contemporary vernacular) calls for a degree of 'orchestration' as precise as a symphony. Characters are required to overlap; pick up cues, like fielding machine-gun bullets, and move in choreographed discipline whilst seeming to be 'natural'. Crowley and Ward's duologue, merging with the Logician (John Hawkins) and the Gent (Tristan Kear) is a particularly tricky set to achieve. If they can do as well on subsequent nights as they managed at the opening, audiences have a hilarious treat to look forward to.
All the performances are commendable, including two very young players, Katy Donelly and Nicholas Kovari, playing the two grocers. Geraldine Mctier, Adam Blake, Rosie Hunt and Gill Calvert also provide excellent support roles. Andrea Mardon, playing Daisy, the woman Bérenger would most like to impress, has a very exacting role. From, a background character that we must not miss, but not see too clearly, she ascends through the play to become the penultimate human not to be infected. Her relationship with Bérenger grows, but doesn't blossom. She has to keep us guessing right to her last exit. Does she ever love him? The stage missed her after her exit. An impact was certainly made.
Abingdon Drama Club should be heartily congratulated on this wonderful production. Last evening, suffering from the usual gremlins of a first night with electrical faults and minor uncertainties, the play still emerged punchy and effective. It asked the questions that seemed critical to Ionesco fifty years ago with an up-to-the-minute freshness that must alarm us today. The press is subtly preparing us for yet another 'necessary' war. In the final analysis, each of us, like Bérenger, has only ourself as reference. Will we have his courage to say "NO!"
Gwilym Scourfield - 28/3/2012