Rhinoceros is a play that demands a contemplative approach from its audience. It is a play, as Andy McNamee states about people who, ‘get rolled up in the snowball of general opinion around them.’ It is fiercely allegorical pertaining mainly to the political climate of early Nazi Germany. Did this come across? Sometimes. The moments at which this message was convincingly conveyed were as powerful and diligently constructed as any that you will see, in any theatre. It is a production that is at once brilliant and yet lacking. It should be a whirlwind of philosophy and laughter of pain and the ridiculous. Perhaps it is a play that is too big for the New Theatre. However everyone involved should be commended for the highly detailed and masterfully manipulated production that has been achieved. It combines stark absurdist humour with stark absurdist inhumanity. That renouncing our humanity should appear the most natural course should be abhorrent, it is horrendous, was I horrified? No. As a production it has very few flaws, as a play taken so far out of context, the dramatic metaphor lacks poignancy.
The play depicts the lives of the inhabitants of a small French town. Who begin to transform into Rhinoceroses. These Rhinoceroses while creating some of the most humourous, and frightening moments should be seen as a metaphor for human brutality, or the lack of humanity in mob mentality. As the play progresses each character succumbs to this desire to be a Rhinoceros, leaving at the last only Berenger (Adam Wood) and Daisy (Sophie Sandham), who play out the climactic confrontation, and raise the question is it better to be a Rhinoceros or to be human.
This play was wonderfully crafted: the animation screen and lighting creating an ‘otherworld’ in which this absurdist drama could uncoil. McNamee and team never tried to shy away from the amusing moments, which is perhaps this performance’s greatest strength. The intersecting and interconnecting of the two conversations, one between Jean (Tim Watkins) and Berenger, another between an Old Gentleman (Rob Orme) and a Logician (Chris Walters), was for me one of the real highlights. The confusion expressed in the dialogue and the careful contradiction and repetition was perfectly done.
The climax of the first half is visually stunning, and emotionally arresting. It is an assault of light and sound, as Jean transforms in a rather hulk like manner into one of the first Rhinoceroses rejecting his friendship with Berenger. The set collapses, and Rhinoceroses appear from all angles, into which anyone can read as much metaphor as they like; the collapse of humanity creating the collapse of the world perhaps?
The smaller performances in the first act we’re very well acted. Nell Charleston who plays the Café Proprietor in particular should be praised for capturing so much character in so few lines. The chorus effect created at the appearance of the Rhinoceroses works remarkably well and is the first hint at the sort of communal mindset that leads to the mass transformation.
The combination of Botard (George Livingston), the skeptic subversive, and the other office employees is fantastic and warranted some of the louder laughs from the audience. What was most encouraging was when McNamee managed to find emotion laced relationships in this absurd piece. Nowhere was this more visible than in the final act where Dudard’s (Sam Pearce) jealousy and resignation and the love between Berenger and Daisy shine through the rather hard and knarled skin of absurdist theatre. When Berenger, now alone, tries to imitate the transformed people around him, I found this apparently hilarious moment, abhorrent and pitiful.
This however was not always the case. I’m afraid the actors did themselves few favours by rushing through much of this complex script. Occasionally lines were lost in the confusion and character trajectories were sent off course by nerves and adrenaline. There were the inevitable first night slips but more than that there were scenes that felt underworked which unfortunately could only lead to bafflement on the side of the audience. A play of this nature demands absolute precision and there were moments when this production managed to thread the eye of the proverbial needle with string made of two by four, at other times it struck wide. I think that this is a play that will leave some thrilled and others just confused.
It is a play that I would recommend very highly. The highest accolade that I can give it is that I cannot decide whether or not I like it, even whether or not I understand it. It will leave audiences talking for a long while to come.