Myra McFadyen

Rhinoceros

25/03/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There are, I’m told, people who “don’t like” theatre. And, of course, those people are absolutely entitled to their opinion. But, oh, how I wish I could take them by the hand and guide them to the Royal Lyceum, where Edinburgh’s International Festival and Istanbul’s Dot Theatre have joined forces to create something I’m sure would change their minds.

I’ve read Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, but I’ve never seen it performed. And, in Turkish director Murat Daltaban’s hands, something magical happens in that leap from page to stage. This is inspirational theatre: at once lively, accessible, thought-provoking and funny. It’s clever, clever stuff – and, judging by the excited, enthusiastic buzz in the theatre bar, it’s crowd-pleasing as well.

Speaking of crowds, that’s pretty much what this play’s about; more specifically, to quote the Lyceum’s artistic director, David Grieg, it’s about “the fragility of the individual in a time of crowds.” Ionesco witnessed the rise of fascism in 1930s Romania, and this play – with bewildered everyman, Berenger (Robert Jack), at its core – highlights the unsettling horror he must have felt at watching his world change. And, of course, the timing of this production is no accident, with the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and the increasing polarisation of political debate.

As the play opens, all seems well. The sleepy French village comes to life like an animated postcard, all bright hues and exaggerated dimensions. Characters and relationships are quickly established, and there is humour and energy in the exchanges, even when they become heated. But the sight of a rhinoceros (or are there two?) rampaging through the town results in the first real tension, the first real rift.

As growing numbers of rhinoceroses appear, Berenger – a drifter with a drink problem – is horrified to learn that they are his friends and neighbours, that the townsfolk are literally turning into these braying beasts. As more and more of them join the herd, Berenger becomes ever more isolated, a predicament that is illustrated beautifully by the ingenious set, reminiscent of a Chinese puzzle box, shrinking his ‘safe place’ until it’s perilous and unworkable.

This is a truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it is prescient. There are some great comic turns, most notably from Myra McFadyen as Papillon and Steven McNicoll as Jean. It’s visually stunning, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music adds to the mood of transformation, with musician Oguz Kaplangi onstage throughout.

Seriously, grab a reluctant theatre-goer and head along to the Royal Lyceum tonight. You’ll be changing hearts and minds.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Hay Fever

HayFever

14/03/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The world of Noel Coward is arguably an overly familiar one – a world of tennis whites and champagne cocktails, of country houses and French windows. Perhaps the word most associated with his work is ‘arch.’ If you’re going to have a crack at the plays of ‘The Master’, you’d better be sure that quality is there in abundance.

Luckily, this co-production from The Lyceum Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, under the astute direction of Dominic Hill, gets it just right. Hay Fever is the story of the Bliss family, four eccentric bohemians co-existing in their country retreat and planning a bit of a bash at the weekend. The father of the house, David (Benny Baxter-Young), is a successful novelist, currently hard at work on his latest opus, The Sinful Woman. His wife, Judith (Susan Woolridge), is a former grande dame who has never quite lost her flair for the theatrical and is happy to utilise it whatever she’s doing (even she’s simply rearranging flowers). And then there are the kids, Sorel (Rosemary Boyle) and Simon (Charlie Archer), both bored to distraction, endlessly bickering and always ready to make a little mischief. When it transpires that each member of the Bliss family has invited a different house guest down for the weekend, it’s clear that the stage is set for some farcical encounters… but who, you might ask, will get to sleep in the Japanese room? And why does it seem to matter so much?

I’ve rarely seen Coward done better than this. The social awkwardness of the various visitors is played for maximum effect. The scene where hopelessly-out-of–her-depth Jackie Coryton (Katie Barnett) is obliged to interact with pompous Richard Greatham (Hywel Simons) is almost painfully funny. On the night we attend, an onstage accident, which results in a hostess trolley tipping over complete with everyone’s breakfast, is skilfully incorporated into the proceedings and gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening. I also enjoy the brief interval where housekeeper Clara (Myra McFadyen) treats us to a brief selection of Coward’s greatest hits.

This is a delightfully frothy confection and, even though it’s set in the 1920s, the awkward toe-curling moments it offers for our entertainment are still just as relevant today. Go along and treat yourself. These days laughter like this is in perilously short supply.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney