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.
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.
From the moment we meet Bérenger, alone and caught in the spotlight of the vast Barbican Theatre, it is clear that we are transported into a very European form of playwriting. Ionesco characters are effectively little more than political and philosophical allegories but manage to retain a humanity that makes us care about the transformation of their society. If Brecht’s playwriting too often acted as a cudgel to the audience then Ionesco has found you can draw as much blood with a rapier.
The lightness of touch blends a comic absurdity to the very serious content of French collaboration with Nazism; a topic rarely excavated to this day and certainly one that sat behind a wall of silence in 1959. The absurdity runs throughout the play, infecting conversations that develop oblique tangents that cut across each other until meaning and context get lost in the roar of stampeding Rhinoceroses. This is wonderfully explicated in the character of the Logician; a straw figure perhaps but deftly handled to retain some sense of humanity. His focus on the rationality of the problem acts as a powerful demonstration of how retaining a positivist approach to social change fatally misses the challenge that is presented, and makes plain that understanding the question is not the same as understanding the answer.
Ionesco’s play is ably supported by a wonderful set design by Yves Collet, which comes into its own during the office scene. Here the set quite literally folds in on itself as a Rhinoceros runs amok. During a scene of quite brilliant comic absurdity we see that, rather than face the challenge, the office workers descend into factional squabbles and achieve nothing – a carefully crafted reflection of the kind of political and social inaction that allowed Nazism to embed itself within culture. Collet’s set enables a very physical performance that highlights the slow but spreading destruction without overshadowing the power of Ionesco’s position.
Throughout the play Maggiani finds a quiet dignity in Bérenger; he begins the play by informing the audience of his problem at connection but it always seem clear that despite being a frustrating character, it is within Bérenger’s friends and colleagues that the problems lay. Dudard’s hypocritical moralising makes him an inevitable candidate for transformation and clearly reflects the kind of curtain-twitching, pompous, self-important middle-classes that formed the backbone of Nazi support in smaller towns. It is within this climate that the Rhinoceros first appears – causing destruction and moral outcry but a fateful amount of inaction, as people chose to continue with life and work around the problem rather than tackle it head-on.
In the office workers we see the slow ebbing away of support as individuals make tactical decisions to join the crowd rather than continue to represent humanity, but it is Daisy where we see hope finally die. Set-up as a love interest and someone who can save Bérenger, we see reflected in Daisy the fact that good intentions must be reinforced by action, and eventually the desire and appeal of the crowd wins out over love of the individual. It is unclear how far this is presented as a moral choice but is strong in reflecting the existential position of needing to love humanity, rather than humans in the singular. It is Bérenger’s love of humanity that enables him to resist whereas as Daisy’s love for him as individual is not strong enough.
This production shows no sign of wear since it was first staged in 2003, and the Barbican has done an excellent job in ensuring its inclusion as part of their Dancing Around Duchamp season. It is a shame that it was only staged for three nights, particularly as it appeared to quickly sell-out, and if it returns then it is recommended you beg, borrow or steal for tickets to this remarkable experience.
After a less than impressive 2012 season, the Barbican appears to be starting 2013 in fine form and Rhinoceros acts as an important reminder of the importance of Ionesco as a playwright and that Anglo-American sensibilities are not the be-all and end-all of quality on stage.