They say that in times of conservative or regressive politics, the arts flourish because they have something to kick back against. For one thing, if that’s true, we’re in for a wild ride. And for another, given the current climate, it’s almost disconcerting how well early-1960s French absurdism just slots into the present day. In Zinnie Harris’s adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s play, the appearance of a rhinoceros – or maybe two of them – sets a town off-balance. It soon becomes clear that it’s the town’s inhabitants that are changing into the animals.
Originally a swift kick aimed at an obstinate right wing and a left wing more inclined to split hairs than to challenge the status-quo, Rhinoceros in 2017 seems to make the best sense, and in truth it’s extremely well-judged. Harris’s scripts brings plenty of contemporary facets into play: the endless nit-picking of terminology; the mistrust of eyewitness or expert testimony; the casual ad hominem attacks peppering the arguments of characters who insist they are logical. In Ionesco’s original, the characters argue over whether a rhinoceros is of African or Asian origin. Here, they’re either European or Middle Eastern. It’s familiar territory, especially for anyone who’s found themselves on social media on the last year.
Director Murat Daltaban has an eye for injecting humour into darkness and darkness into humour. Steven McNicoll as Jean sparkles with personality and riffs well with main character Berenger, played extremely likably by Robert Jack. Ece Dizdar as Papatya gets some wonderful lines and uses them to great effect. The company as a whole is clearly having a great time, and it’s infectious.
Plus it’s just so damned stylish. Designer Tom Piper and lighting designer Chris Davey have clearly had their work cut out – the set, over multiple levels, with mirrors and pull-out sections and floating chairs, seems to almost telescope in as the plot progresses and the options left to Berenger reduce in number. This is a beautiful stage to watch.
There’s a term – and bear with me here – from Max Brooks’s leagues-better-than-the-film-I-swear book World War Z, and that term is the Last Man on Earth, or LaMoE: the lone survivor in a sea of surrounding madness, whose traits both enable them to survive, and make them unable to be effectively rescued and returned to normal society. I thought about that, leaving the Lyceum after Rhinoceros. I thought about holding on to your principles while the world around you crumbles into absurdity. If there are winners in that situation, Ionesco, Harris, and Daltaban don’t point to them. And that in itself is interesting.
Photos courtesy of Beth Chalmers.
Yes, definitely. Go now.
Rhinoceros runs at the Lyceum, as part of Edinburgh International Festival, until 12th August, 14:30, 19:30.