Written for CultureWars.org.uk
When he became artistic director of the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke ruffled a few feathers by mentioning that he might put some “middle class” subjects on his stage. There was a bit of clucking about the disenfranchised and “access” and “the Royal Court’s historic role”. Well, here’s as eloquent an answer as such accusations are ever going to get. French absurdist writer Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros - given its English premiere at the Royal Court in 1960 with a production directed by Orson Welles, starring Laurence Olivier - reminds us this Sloane Square theatre has a long distinguished history of staging important international work, in which the class of the protagonists barely figures as a consideration.
It is still a strange beast of a play, depicting as it does the life of an alcoholic Frenchman - Berenger (Benedict Cumberbatch) - turned upside down when his friends and neighbours start turning into rhinoceroses. It’s a big beast, too, lasting over two and a half hours. This generous time-frame gives Ionesco plenty of time to faff around setting up the scenario, and, to be honest, the early scenes can become a little tiresome after a while. It all rather depends on one’s fondness for quaint, fussy, bookish French comedy. Mine, I confess, is limited. One gets the impression that translator Martin Crimp’s sympathies may also lie elsewhere in these initial routines. Crimp is a strange choice of translator for Ionesco (despite his earlier version of The Chairs for Complicité) with his obvious preference for sardonic wit, rather than surreal buffoonery, in his own plays. However, as the play moves on both Ionesco and Crimp raise their game considerably. By the interval, the joking has stopped and it is clear that despite the absurdity of the situation, it is no less than deadly serious.
The production similarly shifts gear. Whereas in the early stages the actors offer a selection of rather supercilious provincial types, as soon as there is something meaningful at stake the acting falls right into place. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a convincing, if slightly posh, Berenger. Jasper Britten as his friend Jean turns in a fine stab at the difficult job of playing pernickety man slowing transforming into a rhinoceros.
What is interesting about the play is the transition of its meaning. When first produced, only years after the end of World War Two and the Vichy Regime, this story of mass conformity, of changing into unthinking monsters, of the attraction of power, was clearly understood as a metaphor for Nazism. Nearly fifty years on, this is still the most obvious interpretation. But at the same time, there is the opposite interpretation that would cast Berenger’s determined individuality in quite a different light, in a similar way to Harold Pinter’s production of Twelve Angry Men in which Juror Eight’s stubborn refusal to go with the flow became a metaphor for the malign powers of oratory and a symbol for the rise of Hitler. After all, apart from a few more pointed references to the physical power and behaviour of the rhino, couldn’t Berenger’s objection that “it isn’t natural” for a human to turn into a rhino simply be seen as so much prejudice and bigotry? It is also interesting that while much else in the play is slightly vague and fuzzy, Berenger’s descriptions of alcoholism are on a par with Leo McGarry’s in The West Wing. Indeed, at several points, one wonders if it is the alcohol that protects Berenger from succumbing to pachydermal metamorphosis. If so, what does that then make the rhinoceri? Elsewhere there is much that appears to make pertinent comment on our own troubled times with judicious but sparing use of modern buzzwords like “insurgent” and “religious fundamentalist”. At root, the play remains a parable of a lone man’s struggle against his society. And, despite the intervening years, one which still resonates.