Rhinoceros ****

Theatre

Lyceum Theatre (Edinburgh International Festival)

2.30/7.30

August 3rd to 12th 7.30 pm. August 8th, 10th, 12th at 2.30 pm

This is a new version of the classis play by Eugene Ionescu, first seen in 1960. Ionescu was French/Romanian, and moved between the two countries in his childhood. In his youth Ionescu was very aware of friends becoming seduced by  the Romanian Iron Guard, who also became known as the Green Shirts. This was an extreme right organisation which Ionescu referred to in his journals as “rhinoceros.” Hence the germ of this play.

For this version writer Zinnie Harris has collaborated with the Turkish DOT theatre and its director Murat Daltaban. The chief character, Berenger, (Robert Jack) and his friends are in a café when stormy off-stage noises announce the passage across the stage of a rhinoceros. A very laissez faire attitude is taken to this event. A key character is Dudard the Logician (Harry Ward), who discusses the essential importance of matters of matters of language and rhetoric as the tribe of rhinoceros increase.

More and more people succumb, until Berenger visits his work mate Jean who is off sick and we watch his transfiguration. More and more join them, until Berenger is in his flat with his girlfriend Papatya (Ece Dizdar). But then she succumbs and leaves. He is alone and defiant, refusing to change – but this final position is in itself ironic.

The play supposedly starts in a quiet town which is savagely disrupted. This production starts with a surreal man/cat appearing – after lengthy arrangement of chairs has made you wonder if perhaps you have come to a different Ionescu play, called The Chairs. The surreal effects of this opening scene have an almost pantomime air, reducing the sense of outrage when the rhino occurs. The play gathers intensity and strength as it goes on however, and from the point of Jean’s transformation it is spellbinding. The audience becomes increasingly engrossed as we wonder if Berenger will be left alone and if he will in time change.

This is a visually splendid production, with  pitch perfect acting, riding a tightrope between the absurd and the horrific, and with a theme that is sadly about as relevant to our times as it is possible to be.

Tony Challis