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.