Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, Royal Court, 24 Sep 2007 – Directed by Dominic Cooke

If you have a wish to upset your fellow theatre goers and are prepared to look like a complete idiot, you could do worse than to say, in a loud voice, “Of course, it’s based on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you know”. This is almost certainly completely untrue but once the thought entered my head, as I read the final scene before the play started, I couldn’t help seeing some parallels. People getting replaced by inhuman creatures; the surviving group of humanity dwindling to a man and a woman; finally the woman succumbs leaving the man alone to continue the fight. Also the play is said to be about the rise of fascism in the thirties while film is said to be about the rise (or fear thereof) of communism in the fifties.
This is just mischievous; there are almost certainly armies of academics who can prove the conventional wisdom, that this is a play about everybody conforming to a bourgeois herd mentality. There are plenty of differences: In the play people transform; in the movie they are replaced. In the play they become animalistic, instinctive and driven by feeling not thought; in the film they become emotionless and cold. However as the film came out three years before the play, it is not impossible that it created a spark or help kindle one – it’s just very unlikely. I did spend a little time wondering if any other American sci-fi horror films of the fifties could be adapted or re-imagined as absurdist comedies. I shall have to think about whether anything can be done with The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth or I Married a Monster from Outer Space.
I first saw this play in a hut built in the middle of the Lyric Hammersmith’s rehearsal rooms, the rhinoceros transformations were handled by plunging the hut into total darkness. In contrast this production uses some very realistic looking rhino parts although as I was sitting in the circle I was able to see balaclava’d people manipulating scenery and poking horns on blocks of wood through bits of the set. As I’ve mentioned the set there are a couple of vaguely pointless things to point out. First Benedict Cumberbatch pushed bits of balustrade into the stairwell when the staircase collapsed in one scene which I thought odd because they weren’t in the way or anything. Second they seemed to take an inordinate amount of care in replacing the wooden slatted backdrop used in the first two acts, with a more wrecked version for the third act. The way that they were inched up and down the fly-tower (respectively) seemed to indicate that they were too heavy or bulky.

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