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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The Barbican has launched a fascinating surrealist season, Dancing around Duchamp, which traces the influence of Marcel Duchamp (think urinal as an art exhibit) in dance, music and theatre, with Alfred Jarry and Eugène Ionesco prominent in the latter category.

Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1959) is a masterpiece of allegorical abstraction in which a stage full of office workers are transformed into looming rhinos while the hero Bérenger - a role played at the Royal Court first by Laurence Olivier, more recently by Benedict Cumberbatch - stands stubbornly alone, like King Canute, or Ibsen's Dr Stockmann.

This visiting production from the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and designed by Yves Collet, is the first I have seen to express the dream-like, physical convulsion of the play, with a truly sinister apparition of grey/green horny mammals peering at us from the gloaming hinterland.

The phase of transition is outlined in the famous central duologue between Bérenger (Serge Maggiani) and his best friend, Jean (Hugues Quester), as the latter literally assumes rhino characteristics before our very eyes. He lurches, he rolls, he starts speaking gutturally, the bump on his forehead seems to grow larger, he's suddenly huge and quadruped. But he's still Jean, and probably Jean with a hangover.

The main objection to Ionesco was always that his politics were non-specific. But Marxist critiques of absurdism always came from the inexperienced left, not people like Ionesco, a Romanian, who knew of political oppression and conformity at first hand. You could argue that this production is too uniform to start with: everyone in the small village wears identical grey suits, white shirts, red ties.

So, in a sense they are rhinos, or human automatons, already. But the acting is so good and so detailed that you still get a sense of everyday life and normal relationships being invaded by corporate imperatives. And the movement of the rhinos could be representative of religious fundamentalism, political ideology or simply a wave of hysteria such as now engulfs issues of child abuse or even horse meat in burgers.

People naturally want to be on the right side, if not necessarily on the side of the righteous. We will cling to each other only for so long - as represented here with a brilliant see-saw sequence as the cast slither perilously about on the shifting sands of an office drawbridge - until we are sucked into the chorus of louring moos of destructive discontent.

The other great scene is the third act last-ditch dialogue between Bérenger and the sweet-natured but also rather vampish Daisy of Valérie Dashwood, here done as compressed love affair between two world-weary but deeply attractive actors. It's absolutely riveting.

In our last Royal Court revival in 2007, we had a witty, ironic translation by Martin Crimp, but it's a real pleasure to hear the supple lucidity of Ionesco's French original (with good sur-titles). But you'll have to be quick: two more performances tonight and tomorrow.


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