Quel désastre, Britons: we live in a neglected nation! Our country may have entertained Shakespeare when he wasn’t fantasising about Italy, but come the mid-twentieth century and the emergence of Theatre of the Absurd, we were somewhat overlooked as the trade routes of subtle, theatrical intelligence linking Ireland and the Continent skipped over our land altogether.
In Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocéros, the first piece of drama within the Barbican’s Dancing Around Duchamp Season, a proverbial grey animal in the room tells us that we’ve been missing something mighty. Written in 1959, and strikingly influenced by the events of the first half of the century, Ionesco’s piece follows Bérenger (Serge Maggiani), the relatable drunk who battles to retain a grip on his own values as friends and colleagues metamorphose into rhinos. Of course, something so unlikely could only have an allegorical meaning, and as human characters debate whether members of the emerging herd are of African or Asian origin, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is a piece about the ideological forces that come to us from different corners of our globe.
As this production by Parisian company Théâtre de la Ville pivots closer to the theoretical, it runs the risk of eliminating the powerful metaphorical challenge laid by the playwright. Indeed, this adaptation becomes most delightful when it breaks away from anguished allusions to draw our attention, quite shamelessly, to itself. A particularly tickling self-referential moment sees the righteous Jean persuading his unkempt friend Bérenger to take time to broaden his mind through a trip to the museum, or by purchasing tickets a theatrical performance by Ionesco himself.
To those of us who left our French tongues in the GCSE exam room, the reliance on surtitles located a good way away from our line of vision lessens the impact of some incredible, quick-witted lines. All is not lost, though, as Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s company communicates effectively through its own neatly crafted physical language, tastefully mapping not the bodies of the newly-made animals, but instead the physical impacts they have on their civilized environment. Aside from a suitably gloomy video backdrop at the play’s conclusion and a rather tacky moment involving a grey, wax-like door that becomes the thick membrane that completes Jean’s transformation into beast, rhinos are seen only in the trouble they apply to their surroundings. To complete this one-sided battle landscape, Yves Collet’s clever scenography breaks and falls in on itself, and the cast responds energetically to these external transformations under sharp, tight choreography.
Sadly, as the collective fear gradually becomes the feared collective, the impact of the allegory is lost. Focusing not on the specifics of a particular line of thought, but instead on a fear of its hysterical spread, the adaptation becomes less powerful as the narrative progresses and, perhaps because of the strong physical elements and engaging set design seen previously, the speculation that peppered earlier scenes was more haunting than the outcome. As the transformation from human to rhino is seen as less of an illness, and characters start to accept – or even idolise – this new state, the production, in all its binary contrasts, was flattened by the force of its own invisible stampede.
Rhinocéros is playing at the Barbican Centre until Saturday 16 Feb. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican’s website.