An absurd masterpiece or a masterpiece of the absurd

Rhinoceros – Théâtre de la Ville–Paris, Barbican

Théâtre de la Ville–Paris’ production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is practically faultless and it is with considerable surprise to discover that it has taken nearly nine years for it to have crossed the Channel; it is very rare for a near-decade old show to appear to contain so much vitality. It is an evening at the theatre that manages to achieve that rarest of blends – an exquisite play meeting an exceptional production. Over the last five years I can think of just two other productions that could lay claim to being of a similar calibre; Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem anchored by Mark Rylance’s ‘Rooster’ Byron and Rupert Goold’s production of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood.

We are clearly operating in exulted company and it is perhaps telling that despite barriers of style, language and time the three productions share common traits. They all rely on a strong central male character who across the course of the narrative embarks on what we might recognise as an existential crisis that leads them to stand against the forces of change and modernity. To a greater or lesser extent they are the architects of their own downfall, as they each retain a strong moral code that is a major driver for action and embeds a sense of duty that can seem inexplicable to others, and that will cause them to follow a path that can only lead to isolation and destruction.

Each of the productions also share a perfectly pitched casting for its lead character; there is not one moment where Rylance doesn’t fully convince as Rooster, a man whose self-important sense of being part of a grander element of England’s narrative blinds him – metaphorically and eventually all too literally – to the modern culture of the nation. Stewart, as I have written before, captures the transition of Macbeth from the brutally effective soldier to his existential crisis point and onwards to an acceptance of predetermined resolution.

Serge Maggiani as Berenger

In Théâtre de la Ville–Paris’ production we have a central character of equally moral and dramatic weight. Serge Maggiani wonderfully captures the crumpled, unassuming and apathetic Bérenger; a paradoxical figure who is both an everyman and of such inconsequence that his friend, Dudard, feels mindful to provide him with a tie and gives him stern lectures on his social habits. Ionesco has caught in Bérenger a figure that everyone will recognise; the amiable friend who like a drink, and likes an argument alongside it.

Maggiani manages to bring alive a character that is by turns infuriating and charming, capable of great erudition but also a boorish drunk. There is weariness in his actions, a perpetual shrug on his shoulders as he lets life pass him by with a seemingly chronic disregard for the social conventions of those around him. Often striking a rather pathetic figure in sober company, his transformation is a reflection of Kantian virtue as it goes against our sense of his natural manner; where those around him, be they of stronger moral purpose or following a rationalistic instinct, choose to join the Rhinoceroses, Bérenger doggedly becomes the contrarian and rejects the easy path of transformation in favour of humanity.

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