Eugène Ionesco's absurdist classic should be the play for today. Its portrait of a town transforming, one by one, into rhinos is an allegory for the way populist movements take hold – and they've certainly done that of late. As people get swept up into stampedes and herd mentalities set in, it becomes harder and harder to hold out against it. When everyone around him sprouts horns, Ionesco's shambling protagonist Bérenger starts to doubt both his sanity and his humanity. The world seems to invert itself, until rhinos rule.
You can see why it's been programmed in the International Festival. What's less clear is why both Zinnie Harris's new version and Turkish director Murat Daltaban's production take such a hands-off, laid-back approach. Rather than root out its resonance, they seek to restore its original absurdism, so we get pitter-patter comedy and front-facing gags – mostly old-fashioned and unfunny. Tom Piper's zany costumes and Chris Davey's zinging lights invoke the garishness of Herbert Fritsch (the man behind last year's Murmel Murmel) without any of its dizzying queasiness.
Trouble is, today, Rhinoceros is a bit on the nose. Ionesco's allegory has become common parlance for the spread of fascism, and his play looks mighty formulaic. Spot the pattern and you've got its measure. In scene after scene, someone turns rhino. Simply playing that out, as Harris does, adds very little to our sense of the present, still less our ability to respond or resist. We can see people sprouting horns the world over. We need to know why, and what to do next. Ionesco's play might chime with our times but, served this straight, it manages little more than that.
I'm not saying we need rhinos in red caps, but we need some specificity. Instead, Piper uses white paint to further abstract an abstract allegory. He drains the colour from a white stage and uses frames within frames to suggest a shrinking world. Rhinos take the town squares, then the workplaces, then private homes, until finally Robert Jack's frazzled Bérenger stands alone and defiant.
But where it might have been helpful, in hindsight, to turn fascism into a fable, distilling real events and recent history into a cautionary tale, today we need the opposite. The allegory needs returning to reality. The fable has failed. Its fears have come to fruition, and we have to call today's populist movements out for what they are. Fascism. Not rhinoceritis.
Rhinoceros runs at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until 12 August.