Rhinoceros

Eugène Ionesco, in a new translation by Martin Crimp
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2007)

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Unlike his predecessor as the Royal Court's Artistic Director, Ian Rickson, Dominic Cooke has decided to mix new writing with classic plays from the past. Having started with a stream of excellent new work, he has bravely chosen to direct a play that is part of Royal Court legend as his first revival.

In 1960, the Court staged the British premiere of Rhinoceros under the direction of Orson Welles, with a cast led by Laurence Olivier and his future wife Joan Plowright but also including Peter Sallis, perhaps best known now for his performances on TV in Last of the Summer Wine.

This was always going to be a hard act to follow but at least Cooke could be comforted by the knowledge that a relatively small proportion of today's audience would have been around to see the original 47 years ago.

Rhinoceros is a fine example of the Theatre of the Absurd, with madness prevalent, especially in the early scenes. After the interval, it turns into a fascinating Orwellian allegory exploring the inexorable rise of fascism.

Cooke has played safe with his choice of translator, selecting old Royal Court favourite Martin Crimp who has already brought another Ionesco, The Chairs, to Sloane Square. His version is suitably funny in the early stages before becoming intelligently verbose and, like 1984, ending up depressingly chilling.

Anthony Ward, who also designed Macbeth which had its London opening the previous night, provides a clean, open staging with a space into which props are flown or wheeled to transport the action from one place to another.

He also has great fun in destroying parts of his own set, including a wood panelled back wall and a staircase. In addition, with the assistance of Jonathan Beakes and Millennium FX the play is supplied with realistic rhinoceros heads that, by the end, become de rigueur in this benighted French town.

Act One features witty social comedy primarily featuring two pairs of Frenchman often using the same lines but creating different effects. A straight-faced Benedict Cumberbatch is the play's protagonist, Bérenger, a somewhat neurotic office worker with a taste for drink and also his pretty colleague Daisy. His uncertainty is contrasted with the bombastic attitude of his friend Jean (Jasper Britton), who attempts to snap him out of alcoholic lethargy.

At the next table sit an old man and a logician who attempt to discover the meaning of life but never get near to it. The presence of the latter is appropriate, since the nature of this theatrical genre is to take an impossible situation and then follow it through to its logical conclusion as if it made perfect sense.

A normal Sunday afternoon falls into disarray as the cafe crowd is disrupted by a rumbling noise that initially sounds like a rather noisy Circle Line train coming into Sloane Square Station.

As the sound builds and the stage shakes, one quickly discovers that it is in fact the unexpected appearance of a rhinoceros, which defeats even the logician. It also crashes a furry cat, possibly rather too convincingly for those who love moggies.

The drama then moves to Bérenger's mundane office where we meet a series of colleagues who are deliberately drawn as stereotypes. The comic pick of this dull group is Lloyd Hutchinson as the independent minded Botard. From there, our representative on stage visits his sick friend Jean. At this point, following an angry exchange, the play really becomes bizarre as Britton convincingly transforms himself from middle-aged man to rampant rhino.

The comedy ends with the interval curtain, since thereafter the tone becomes far more serious, if still satirical. In succession, the neurotic Bérenger debates the merits of succumbing to rhino fever with two guests.

His first visitor is Paul Chahidi's emollient Dudard, who is so keen to maintain the status quo that, like the majority of citizens in Germany before the War, he watches passively as an increasing percentage of the population succumbs to the rhino cause. They are interrupted by a woman with whom both are secretly in love, Zawe Ashton as Daisy.

By the end, Daisy and Bérenger become the final representatives of humanity in a world given over to occupants with hard green skin and horns. It might be inappropriate to give any more of the game away other than to say that Ionesco leaves at least a little room for hope as the final curtain in this 2½ hour comedy drama comes down.

The acting from a cast that will also be working together on The Arsonists by Max Frisch in the same theatre is universally good. Leading the cast, screen regular Benedict Cumberbatch, who has made his name on stage in much grimmer roles, particularly when playing opposite Eve Best in Hedda Gabler, shows that he also has a talent for comedy.

As this critic was not born when Welles and Olivier worked together on this play, a comparison is not possible but Dominic Cooke and Martin Crimp have created a world that is by turns amusing and terrifying and as such well worth investigating.

Running until 15th December

Reviewer: Philip Fisher