Sunday, 17 February 2013


Barbican, 15 February 2013
Zero Mostel's famed transformation into a rhinoceros.
Vastly - truly vastly - inferior to the distrurbing transformation in this production.
The surely definitive production of this disturbing theatrical fable.

That the people turn into rhinos in this drama is a happy accident, according to Ionesco’s daughter, who took part in an informative after-show discussion at the Barbican.  

Although he wanted rhinos because they are alien, thick-skinned, stubborn, violent, and make incomprehensible trumpeting sounds, he had also wanted a gregarious animal. It’s clear also from his notes attached to the programme, that Ionesco was originally aiming at a satire on fascism, or fanaticism more generally. 

His theatre parable is immensely more powerful for - accidentally - not having such a clear message. Nor, watching it, could I imagine he could ever have intended such a message, so convincing are the transformations into rhinos. No other animal could work in this drama, I felt. Certainly not one with a leader, or any kind of social mentality.

The hero, Bérenger, who alone fails to change into a rhino, is already alienated at the very start of the action. Purposelessly passionate, and typically yielding to others when he realises he has gone too far, he is also consciously detached from the world of work, the world of romance, indeed everything around him.

Rhinoceros is usually described as an absurdist drama, a term I’m happy to discover Ionesco found as confusing as I do. There are some wonderful absurd moments, none related to the transformations. For example, the prattle of the logician painfully satirises the reason that is supposed to distinguish us from rhinos.

Importantly, the transformations do not seem absurd: they seem inevitable and quite realistic. In this way, the drama retains its integrity, and avoids a straightforward interpretation.

Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production is so good I can’t imagine a better one. Serge Maggiani is a convincingly pathetic Bérenger, while the moralistic Jean’s slow transformation, signposted from the start, involves no mugging on the part of Hugues Quester. It is deeply disturbing, as it should be.

The rest of the cast are also excellent, and the depiction of the gossip-ridden, mechanical wine merchant’s office where Bérenger works, is now burnt into my visual memory.
The final image, of the last man stepping into the void, is wonderfully correct. If there can be a better production of this drama, I will eat my horn.

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