Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocéros of 1959 is absurd theatre indeed. Describing how all, except one, of the inhabitants of a French town turn into rhinoceroses it could represent the way in which either fascism or fashion can take hold of people, causing them to follow the trend like sheep.
Theatrically, it is no less bizarre (or entertaining) as characters employ the type of logic that leads them to conclude that Socrates was a cat, or argue vehemently over whether it is African or Asian rhinoceroses that have two horns.
One of the reasons, however, that Théâtre de la Ville decided to revive its 2004 production is that new performances can shed further light on the piece, and in this instance the psychological needs of the one person who resists the transformation, Bérenger, are illuminated. He is a thinker, a dreamer and a drinker, but his shock at people pursuing their own happiness by metamorphosing, and denouncement of rhinoceroses as unnatural (for humans), surely goes against the liberal ideals he supposedly stands for. This does not mean, however, that we do not take his side as we also see people content to transform through curiosity or unthinking herd instinct.
If the play can feel slow moving in places, it is staged highly effectively. The rhinoceroses’ first charges are represented purely through other people’s reactions to these, with chairs toppling and glasses shaking. Pieces of portable set are locked together in a variety of formations to create different spaces, including an office whose floor tips up sending everyone flying. It only takes a long shiny coat and black hat to make it clear that someone is turning into a rhinoceros, while the appearance of many at the end creates an aesthetically pleasing image that helps us to understand the allure of the beast. From amongst the strong cast the highest accolades go to Serge Maggiani as Bérenger who effectively conveys a sense of philosophical melancholy, especially in his substantial monologues.
Until 16 February at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS starting at 19.45. Tickets (£25-£35): 020 7638 8891 or click here.
Photo: Serge Maggiani as Bérenger and Valerie Dashwood as Daisy, © Jean-Louis Fernandez.