Theatre like anything else is subject to the caprices of fashion and, with N F Simpson recently revived at the Donmar and now Rhinoceros receiving its first major production in London since 1960, the wheel seems to have come full circle for the absurdist drama of the fifties and sixties.
Dominic Cooke makes exactly the right decision to play Ionesco’s oblique study of the dangers of conformity with absolute truthfulness. Apart from some appropriately farcical moments, the cast led by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch give totally naturalistic performances despite a situation that is as absurd as you can imagine, and it’s all the funnier for it.
Nothing could be more wonderfully incongruous than Paul Chahidi as Dudard rationalising away, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, the fact that outside the window a whole population is transforming itself into pachyderms.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the play is when Dudard, a student of law and balancer of arguments, after defending at length the right of individuals to be whatever they want to be, himself succumbs to the call of the multitude and joins the pack. Ionesco was surely thinking of the intellectuals and artists who, through power of their reason, allowed themselves to be drawn into the Nazi/fascist horror.
Jasper Britton is marvellous as the testy uptight Jean and his transformation into a rhinoceros before our eyes is a wonder to behold. Technically this is a difficult piece to pull off and Cooke and his team do it magnificently. Anthony Ward’s adaptable setting increasingly resembles a war zone as the scaly former home-owners struggle to adapt their newly-acquired physicality to urban living.
Whether Ionesco’s comedy holds up quite as well as Cooke’s production is another matter. Once you’ve got the joke, and its underlying message, the situation begins to pall and, despite Martin Crimp’s witty and fluent new translation, there’s a stilted quality to the drama. The early interplay of logical reasoning and character exposition is dazzling but later scenes including Berenger’s final soliloquy of defiance, though superbly executed by Cumberbatch, creak mightily.
This is a play well worth seeing but, if the production does contribute to a revival of the genre, I suspect the limitations of Ionesco and other so called Absurdists will mean it’s a short-lived one. Unlike Beckett’s more searching exploration of the absurdity of existence and less overt philosophising, Ionesco’s dramatic technique feels dated.
With nearly half a century gone since the Royal Court premiered Rhinoceros, it may be a long time before the play sees the light of day again. Enjoy it while you have the chance.