Time and again during Zinnie Harris’s new adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s famous farce, people tell each other not to be absurd. Obviously, it’s a not-so-subtle reference to Ionesco’s honoured place within the role-call of the post-War ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, but it’s also surely an apt description within this colourful, but somewhat slow production by Turkish director Murat Daltaban (of Istanbul’s DOT Theatre, co-producing with Edinburgh’s own Royal Lyceum Theatre).

The world they inhabit feels just too cartoonish to matter

In Rhinoceros, human civilisation ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but rather the low roar of the beast as, one by one, the inhabitants of a small French town start to mutate into rampaging rhinoceroses. Only dishevelled Berenger—who wanders into town the ‘morning after the night before’, covered in bird shit—is destined to be left (literally, as it turns out) the last man standing. There’s no particular reason given for why he’s immune to the change; that said, no explanation is ever proposed for the rhinoceroses in the first place, so it all balances out eventually.

Ionesco was originally inspired by witnessing the rise of the far-right “green shirt” Iron Guard in 1920s Bucharest, but Harris and Daltaban have opted to give us a Rhinoceros for our times; the poster image gives the titular animal a Donald Trump-style quiff. There’s talk about journalists being flexible when it comes to facts, arguments over the nature of truth, and echoes of the social unrest seen in Turkey and Venezuela. Berenger is even accused of being a migrant, while the townsfolk get quite heated about identifying the differences between a European and Middle Eastern rhinoceros. Subtle it is not.

A talented comedic ensemble equip themselves well here; Robert Jack, as Berenger, has a good line in incredulous disbelief, although the dramatic weight of the piece is carried by Steven McNicol as his friend Jean—most notably while transforming from man to beast. Nevertheless, the world they inhabit feels just too cartoonish to matter; Tom Piper’s white-walled set, shifting and shrinking as Berenger’s world gets smaller—is fascinating, but also literally overshadows the cast.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

In a sleepy French provincial town, a rhinoceros rampages across the market square. Another crushes someone’s cat.

A woman sounds the alarm: it is the townspeople themselves who are transforming into these raging beasts. As more and more of the citizens embrace their future as rhinos, just one man – the drunkard Bérenger – refuses to transform. But why does he feel so out of step with everyone else? And what will his refusal to conform cost him?

Eugène Ionesco’s classic 1959 play is an uproarious absurdist farce – and a chilling examination of conformism, nationalism, fascism and fundamentalism that has been compared with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Camus’s The Plague. It considers the countless ways in which humans are content to adapt themselves to new and horrifying circumstances, and give in to poisonous ideologies.

Alongside its piercing political insights, it is comic, thrillingly theatrical and deeply human, focusing on the unlikely hero of the everyman Bérenger, and the possibility of resistance to what might seem inevitable.

A historic capital city from the far south-east of Europe collaborates with another historic capital in Europe’s far north-west to create a show that speaks urgently to the whole continent, and beyond.

Edinburgh’s illustrious Royal Lyceum Theatre comes together with DOT Theatre of Istanbul, one of Turkey's most radical independent theatre companies, for a new Scottish/Turkish version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. This production is presented in a new version by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris, directed by the celebrated founder of DOT Theatre, Murat Daltaban, and performed by a diverse company of actors from Scotland and Turkey. This is the first to be performed of three plays written or adapted by Zinnie Harris at the International Festival this year.

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