Writer: Eugene Ionesco
Adapter: Zinnie Harris
Director: Murat Daltaban
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
There is much in the modern world that we might reasonably describe as absurd. But not the fun kind of absurd, like the charmingly harmless nonsense of Alice in Wonderland, where animals talk gobbledegook and logic is inverted to wry effect. There is a darker kind of absurdity that is foremost in our consciousness today, a poisonous, primal absurdity that threatens our sense of wellbeing by undermining the very things that we hold to be true, or important, or to have value to us. A political dialogue, for example, dominated at home by numbers printed on the sides of buses, and the particular colour of our passports, and demonstrated overseas by the investment of potency in powerful figures who are so manifestly weak and unstable.
It is rare to find a play which so strongly reflects the concerns and fears of a world where these absurdities have such ugly consequences, and rarer still that such a play should be over half a century old, born of a similar period of social transformation still within living memory.
Eugene Ionesco’s classic drama imagines a small French town which falls into animalistic chaos, as its residents transform into rhinoceroses, stampeding through the streets. In Zinnie Harris’s new version, staged jointly between Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre and DOT Theatre Istanbul and first presented at least year’s Edinburgh International Festival, the textual resonances feel palpably current.
The absurdity of Ionesco’s vision is very much intact, in physical as well as verbal form. The cast make relatively light work of what could be labour intensive flights of fancy, and the early sequences of the story are not without wit. What starts as wryly amusing soon turns darker, however, as a beloved cat is trampled by a (possibly) Middle Eastern rhinoceros, and the tone lurches towards more existential drama.
Robert Jack is the hapless bystander caught up in the midst of this metamorphosis, watching as those around him surrender to bestial form. As he struggles to make sense of the apparently irrational, he wonders if he could have done anything to prevent the epidemic – would it have been different if he’d been nicer to them, or not drunk so much, or been on time a bit more often? In later scenes, however, he is reduced to a shout-y cipher as he struggles to retain his humanity against all the odds.
Steven McNicoll lumbers through the story in the best possible way, being hauled onto the stage with all the grace of a dead elephant in the early scene, before the strange, unpleasant magic that is his transformation out of human form. It is a startling and emotional sequence that is rightly all the more powerful for the lightness which has come before it.
An ensemble cast bring the town’s other citizens to life, bitching and back-biting through daily life until the arrival of the (possibly) European rhinoceros wreaks havoc on their world. The undertones of fascism are spelled out a little too clearly than is necessary at times, whilst the high-octane energy of the opening scene is lost in subsequent exchanges. But the production’s greatest strength is its vision and design, the scale and mechanism of which is a rarity on Edinburgh’s stages.
Murat Daltaban brings a fresh, European sensibility to the staging, with an almost cinematic scope to some of the story’s moments, elevating its absurdist tone beyond the dangers of feeling parochial or old fashioned. Tom Piper’s staging is filled with small moments of wonder, escalating to a final breath-taking moment of dramatic imagery. Physicalising the perilous narrowing of the world as the rhinos take over is brilliantly effective at expressing what the text itself would struggle to do within the shallow emotional range of the absurdist form.
Harris’s text itself is overlong (even at an advertised 96 minutes) with the later scenes lacking sharpness and subtlety, while the descent from absurd humour into existential horror feels too steeply paced, giving the overall production an awkwardly unbalanced tone.
But nevertheless there is plenty here to laugh at, be amazed with, and be challenged and provoked by. There’s a resonance and a power amongst the cries and confusion to make this feel very much a play for our age, one dominated by primitive isolationism and rabid popularism, which has delivered us Brexit and Trump. It is a rallying cry for resistance and engagement and compassion, however absurd such acts might seem.
Runs until 7 April 2018 | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic