The poster rhino for Zinnie Harris’s new version of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is not your average odd-toed ungulate. For his photo shoot this grand beast has been given a makeover. A hefty coating of tangerine foundation coats its skin, its sad little rhino eye is outlined in bruised blue eye shadow, and someone has lovingly combed its soft, blonde bouffant. It’s even got a smart white shirt on and shiny red tie. Like much about this 2017 update of Ionesco’s absurdist play, the publicity image message is as clear as a giant footprint in sticky mud: this is a play about President Donald Trump.
There are several positive features to director Murat Daltaban’s production, premiering at the Royal Lyceum as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The set design by Tom Piper is a modernist maze of moving parts. As Berenger (Robert Jack) becomes more and more isolated in his commitment to not joining the stubbornness [collective noun enthusiasts, there’s one for you], his world contracts into ever-smaller sparse domestic spaces. His forced downsizing ends with him alone, tottering on a tower of white objects like the last surviving liberal lighthouse keeper. In opposition to the ‘let’s go back to nature’ furore happening largely off-stage, the set design does civilisation art gallery style. The last thing this White Company-friendly setting needs are wild animals stomping their un-wiped feet through the hallway.
It does, however, get the occasional splattering. Berenger gets, quite literally, repeatedly shat on thanks to invisible passing birds that appear like the hand of God to give his living nightmare an extra coating of misery. One of the highlights of the play is the performance of the cast, in particular Steven McNicoll as Jean. In a great piece of anthropomorphic acting, he does his bit to de-whiten the stage whilst taking a transformative bath with all the gusto of a creature that hasn’t seen a water hole in several days. ‘Realistic and enthusiastic rhino snort’ should be added to the skills section of his CV.
Similarly, Jack makes the increasingly harried Berenger an attractively ramshackle dissident. Lurching around in dirty Converse, his solid dedication to resistance is edged with the sticky smell of alcohol sweats and rising panic at being the last man standing.
Rhinoceros is a co-production between the Edinburgh International Festival and Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in association with DOT Theatre, Istanbul. Read the programme notes and it claims that this modern version of Rhinoceros is about the rise of repressive political upswings in Turkey as well as in English speaking countries. Yet with the Trump rhino on the cover and its premiere in English at EIF (complete with heavy-handed meta mentions of the festival in the script) it feels like the emphasis is pretty squarely on America, with the implicit assumption that these themes and ideas are universal and therefore applicable to situations elsewhere. The overriding problem with the Trump analogy is that it’s highly unlikely anyone in the Lyceum auditorium voted Trump – not least because the play is not even being performed in the country in question.
If there is a universalising aspect to Ionesco’s play, it lies in the text’s ability to question people at all positions on the political spectrum, meaning it can be read as equally critical of fascism and communism. The being-a-rhino part is about an inability to think outside of an accepted ideology reinforced by the pressure of the collective. Using a modern version to demonstrate how those you don’t identify with (as most of the EIF audience likely feel about Trump voters) are uncivilised and wrong-headed, risks turning what is intended as a deliberately uncomfortable piece of theatre into a self-congratulatory act. Worse still, without any truly interrogatory message or political bite, the absurdist aesthetic loses its underlining point; incessant repetition, contrived dialogue and surrealist images (a giant cat/man in a suit, for example) deteriorate to at times feeling actually pointless, rather than pointedly pointless. The audience of the EIF, myself included, don’t need to be congratulated on not voting for Trump, and they certainly don’t need to point fingers across the Atlantic to reiterate feelings of self-righteousness. The suggestion that they do is truly absurd.
Rhinoceros is on at the Royal Lyceum until 12 August 2017. Click here for more details.