Rhinoceros is a play about the inhabitants of a small French town. It seems like a quiet, sleepy place – reminiscent of Trumpton – with a square, a local fire brigade, and offices. Over the three act no interval play, the audience watch the inhabitants adapt to changing circumstances as an epidemic of rhinoceritis overtakes the townspeople.
Bérenger is the central character and plays the common man. As the play begins, he is being scolded for his drunkenness by a friend when the appearance of a rhinoceros interrupts them. Soon other rhinos are spotted, and one tragically tramples a local cat.
It’s in the paper in black and white … It’s in the Dead Cats column, you can’t deny that.
Confusion reigns. While there might have been more pertinent questions to ask, the cast are soon debating the type of rhinoceroses that they’ve seen – one horn or two horn … and even whether it could have been a unicorn! The appearance of The Logician further muddies their response to the dangerous epidemic.
The modular set is simple but effective, with fabric covered panels forming the shape of the town’s houses, and forming windows which superbly frame the talented cast of five. Sion Dey’s haunting score subtly signals off-stage rhinoceros behaviour.
Eugène Ionesco’s 1969 play examines how we react to new and fearful conditions and philosophies. While we can sometimes agree about the new enemy, we spend longer categorising and explaining it than figuring out how to stand up and resist. We accuse others of intolerance.
I think you’re right to have some reaction, but you go too far.
We question what is propaganda and what is truth. We ignore the
Rhinos are living creatures, with as much right to life as the rest of us.
Soon some will become comfortable with the oppressor or the conflicting ideology, excusing or even joining the new movement.
[We can] build a life on new foundations.
And the blame shifts from the oppressor to the oppressed.
Maybe it’s our own fault.
So far, so good. However, the Paris-based company Theatraverse have added another twist to Ionesco’s already absurdist play. Many of the characters deliver their lines in French, the remainder in English. This doesn’t affect the on-set characters (who seem confidently bi-lingual) but it does cloud the understanding of the audience.
The Belfast Festival programmers assured audiences that “Does not require French to enjoy”.
I beg to differ. My rusty school-boy French allowed me to pick out snippets of the dialogue, but far too slowly to keep up with the cast. At least two thirds of the dialogue was in French. And the delivery of some of the English lines was indistinct.
Without French I could certainly follow the plot and understand the dynamics of each scene. However, I was left wondering why nearly Francophones were laughing at French dialogue, and missed a lot of the detail including Bérenger’s final lines which explain the rational of his final decision. It’s like two-thirds of the subtitles failing on a foreign film. It makes me want to read a copy of the play to discover what I missed.
At only an hour and forty minutes long I wouldn’t dissuade you from picking up a ticket to attend Saturday or Sunday night’s performances. (There’s a post show talk with the cast on Sunday.) However, by adapting Ionesco’s play and mixing languages, Theatraverse have deformed the work and created a much more complicated, multi-layered work. For me, the inaccessibility and supplementary confusion ended up detracting rather than enhancing Rhinoceros.