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.