A design-led production with political prescience

theatre review | Read in About 2 minutes
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Published 09 Aug 2017

As a young man, Eugene Ionesco witnessed the rise of fascism in Europe. As a post-war playwright, the history he witnessed clearly influenced his 1960 Rhinoceros. In this visually-driven adaptation, Zinnie Harris relates the current rise of fascism in Trump’s America to the pachyderm epidemic sweeping Ionesco’s French village.

Tom Piper’s design is the strongest feature of this two-hour adaptation, though it does serve to cover up a script reliant on clumsy, old-fashioned dialogue. The initial clean, white box evokes a Mediterranean piazza where people wile away an afternoon, but it doesn't stay in this state for long. The thundering of a passing rhinoceros which begins the crumbling of society has the same effect on the set. Chairs no longer sit on the ground, but dangle from ropes. As time passess layers are added to the stage. Whilst creating a vertical escape from the rhinos, the remaining human characters are left teetering on smaller and smaller platforms.

Robert Jack is an engaging Berenger who clings onto a life of drinking and partying. He has a great transition to someone who is desperate, frightened and alone. More problematic is his generally naturalistic performance, while other characters are heightened. In this contemporary update, the mix of styles jars rather than compliments the concept.

The production values are excellent, but the political metaphor isn’t used enough. Harris includes a few lines about the fundamental character of a nation changing, and that you never expect it will happen to your country until it does, but that’s it. This momentary comparison to the US is fleeting, hanging in the air like the dust from the rhinos, then drifts away.