The renewed interest in what used to be called the Theatre of the Absurd – really just philosophical surrealism – has led the Royal Court’s artistic director, Dominic Cooke, back to one of his theatre’s earliest successes, Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.
In 1960, Orson Welles directed Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright (Maggie Smith in the West End transfer) in this metaphorical parable about the inhabitants of a provincial French town converting en masse to “rhinoceritis”; they change into rhinos with only Berenger – like some barmy Ibsenite loner – refusing to join in.
Martin Crimp’s new translation signals a test case for lightness of touch in the sombre context of Royal Court social realism and launches a new ensemble to play Ionesco in tandem with Max Frisch’s The Arsonists (another early Court success, better known as The Fire Raisers).
Much of Cooke’s production on a splintering orange box set by Anthony Ward is highly enjoyable. The traditional rumbling of the Circle Line trains under Sloane Square (a distraction an infuriated Harold Pinter once wanted forcibly obliterated when directing a play there) is augmented by the gathering storm of galloping rhinos.
Berenger (Benedict Cumberbatch) is nursing a hangover and fielding the fussy disapproval of his friend Jean (Jasper Britton). Jean himself goes out on a bender that night and, the next morning, is paying the price. The second act transformation of Jean is the brilliant highlight of the show; as Britton whinnies and groans, develops a bump on his forehead, charges naked around the stage and finally joins the bestial herd.
This dispenses with the idea that alcoholism might be a shield against conformism. Ionesco’s point is less precise. The unstoppable movement of rhinos is a sign of uniformity. It was once seen to be a stand against fascism; now, it could equally be against Marxism or religious fundamentalism. This makes nonsense, however, of Berenger’s last ditch desire to change his skin and grow a protuberant nose.
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.
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.