Eugene Ionesco’s early Absurdist play Rhinoceros received its first major UK revival last night (27 September 2007, previews from 21 September) at the Royal Court, where it continues until 15 December, directed by artistic director Dominic Cooke. From 6 November (previews from 1 November), it will run in repertory with Ramin Gray’s revival of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, performed by the same company.

That company is led by Benedict Cumberbatch who, in Ionesco’s satire on conformity, plays Berenger, a man whose entire world is threatened when herds of rhinoceroses start thundering through town. He’s joined by Jasper Britton, Zawe Ashton, Michael Begley, Paul Chahidi, Jacqueline Defferary, David Hinton, Lloyd Hutchinson, Claire Prempeh, Alwyne Taylor and Graham Turner.

In the Jerwood Theatre Downtairs, the plays by Romanian-born Frenchman Ionesco and the Swiss Frisch form the cornerstone of the Royal Court’s internationally themed autumn season. The International Playwrights Season runs concurrently in the smaller Jerwood Theatre Upstairs with five new plays by writers from Germany, Romania, India, Sweden and Ukraine.

Rhinoceros had its Royal Court premiere in a 1960 production directed by Orson Welles and starring Laurence Olivier. The Arsonists (then under the title of The Fire Raisers) premiered at the Court a year later, directed by Lindsay Anderson with Alfred Marks and John Thaw in the cast.

While overnight critics are self-confessed fans of Dominic Cooke and the changes he’s effected at the Royal Court since taking over as artistic director earlier this year, they’re less sure about the merits of Ionesco’s play, which some considered dated, dull and predictable – despite Martin Crimp’s “wittily amusing” new translation. However, there was praise for Cooke’s “exemplary” production values and for many of the performances, particularly that of Jasper Britton, whose physically robust, second-act rhinocerisation was declared the evening’s highlight.

  • Michael Coveney on (three stars) - “The second act transformation of Jean is the brilliant highlight of the show; as Jasper Britton whinnies and groans, develops a bump on his forehead, charges naked around the stage and finally joins the bestial herd … Cooke’s production lacks the sort of wildness that would renew the theatricality of the piece; it’s all a little too English and polite, and the rhino masks are too literal and pantomimic. The third act scenes between Berenger and the loyal Daisy (Zawe Ashton) are the weakest part of Crimp’s script and the most tentatively played. Benedict Cumberbatch is a brilliant actor, but he’s far too modest in this knockout role. The company includes fine contributions from Lloyd Hutchinson as an officious pen-pusher in a black beret, Paul Chahidi as a comic rationalist and Jacqueline Defferary as the hysterical housewife whose trampled pussy cat is the first sign of the rhino revolution.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “One gets the point of Ionesco's parable, but it has few of the narrative surprises found in a fictional equivalent such as Animal Farm. His central metaphor is also so vague as to be meaningless: you could apply it with equal validity to Nazism, communism or capitalist consumerism. In celebrating nonconformist individualism as automatically heroic, he is in danger of assuming every minority is right. Even if I find the play intellectually woolly and predictable, I can't deny the wit of Martin Crimp's translation or the vitality of Cooke's staging. There are some genuinely funny moments … And Anthony Ward has come up with a set that memorably disintegrates: in one unforgettable image we see a rhino horn, belonging to Berenger's best friend, suddenly protruding through a bathroom door. The production values are exemplary ... And, although Cumberbatch doesn't succeed in making Berenger anything more than a nay-saying cipher, there is a peach of a performance from Jasper Britton as Jean.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “I entered the theatre expecting to be bored rigid, for theatrical absurdism often amounts to little more than trite mechanical parables … By the end, only the scruffy, drink-befuddled Berenger, entirely surrounded by hostile rhinoceroses, is left to deliver the play’s predictable moral: ‘Woe betide the man who refuses to conform.’ I distrust art whose meaning can be summed up in a single sentence. Bub moment by moment, Cooke’s production, in a lively new version by Martin Crimp, is often highly entertaining … Cooke’s production beautifully captures the disbelief of the local citizenry when the rhino phenomenon first becomes apparent … And Anthony Ward’s ingenious design keeps springing surprises right to the end … Benedict Cumberbatch memorably captures the rumpled decency, confusion and despair of the everyman hero. Jasper Britton is hilarious as a prissy, fastidious Frenchman who spectacularly transforms himself into a furious rhino and Zawe Ashton provides some much needed love interest in this somewhat sterile fable.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “What abundant laughter attends Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros! … Ionesco's purpose, though, is deadly serious … His play cynically views the human drive to conformity and, perhaps influenced by Hitler's occupation of France, an ostrich-like refusal to face the truth … Berenger's best friend, Jasper Britton's Jean, who first appears in a three-piece suit and a fit of smug, self-adoring belligerence, later undergoes a swift physical and vocal transformation that marks his rhinocerisation. Britton's powerfully articulated performance, a comic and dramatic bull's-eye, is not matched by Cumberbatch's. As Berenger he effectively registers amiability and gauche passion for Zawe Ashton's Daisy but not real terror when he takes a defiant stand to resist becoming a rhinoceros… Cooke, fortified by Martin Crimp's wittily amusing translation, works best in the fields of black comedy. He has a clear eye for menace, too, with the chilling final tableau of rhinoceroses surrounding all exits in Berenger's wrecked apartment. The text, though, needs trimming. The prolonged satirical-absurdist arguments, which make laboured nonsense of logic, need severe pruning. Even so Rhinoceros remains utterly captivating.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “Dominic Cooke has just the genius and kick that this venue needs. We seem, thrillingly, to be re-entering the era of Stephen Daldry. It's fist-bitingly exciting. All the same, why are we being subjected to Rhinoceros? … It feels to me flat-out mistake. It's an act of piety, to be sure. Ionesco's play was one of the first shows to be put on at Court. It's quite brilliantly directed. Cooke strikes me as possibly the most gifted director in the country (equally able in the classics and new work). And yet not even his flair can rescues a play that seems dated and dead … Cooke's stunning production … whips up the tension brilliantly, with its off-stage suggestion of a stampede. It's lucid, expertly orchestrated and yet the play, an Absurdist fable about the pressure to conform (Fascist, Communist, you name it) has not survived its own occasion. Benedict Cumberbatch is marvellous in the lead. Cooke is a great actors' director and he releases something in Cumberbatch we have not seen before … I was impressed and bored.”

    - by Terri Paddock