Written after WWII, in the aftermath of fascism and while communism was gaining momentum in his native Romania and throughout Eastern Europe, Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros – in which all but one citizen of a provincial French town turn into the animal from the title and proceed to take over – was a clear eulogy for friends, allies and general masses who succumbed to these new ideologies.
Seventy years later it’s perhaps a bit more difficult to intuitively know who the rhinoceroses in the room are – although that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of candidates. Without the benefit of a silent, shared awareness of one particular, dominating and emerging force however, any staging of Rhinoceros has to at least nod in the direction of its zeitgeist.
Theatre de la Ville’s production, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, neglects to do this. Instead it leaves the audience with a narrative so unsharpened it’s entirely possible to assume the rhinoceros is no allegory at all. Set in a space that’s functional, but not particularly prone to semantics, it seems to insist on giving the play a very general 21st century hue, focusing on a modern day everyman.
The main character, Berenger, the only remaining human at the end of the play, is more of a lazy alcoholic than an almost clairvoyant, sensitive spirit who suffers from a clear case of weltschmerz; while his surroundings don’t seem to be particularly motivating or thrilling, they also don’t look like soul destroying places that would offer an explanation for his general demeanour. Where Ionesco uses the beginning of the play to set a stark contrast between Beranger and the rest, and lay out an atmosphere of constant suspense that can only result in something as out of place as a rhinoceros epidemic, Demarcy-Mota seems to be going for a forced normality a la Houellebecq. This forced normality, consisting of a draining Monday to Friday, nine to five rhythm, weekend binges and general uniformity, is perhaps a fertile if tired ground for modern-time tales, but it’s equally not compatible with where Ionesco is heading. The rat race might not be pleasant or to everyone’s taste, but it’s hardly an army of rampaging beasts; it induces a slow and painful death, rather than trampling over its victims, and most importantly – it doesn’t collect devoted followers.
This mismatch between the issue in the play and the issue enforced in the performance makes Ionesco’s writing seem like a stretched metaphor, instead of being beautifully logical in its absurdity. Ionesco’s structure often relies on the acceptance of ridiculous or hyperbolic circumstances by the characters – in other words, people are more wary of the rhinoceros than bewildered by their very appearance. This is only possible because of what Ionesco first establishes as normal; when the chosen normality is that of corporate living, the wonder of the play’s title suddenly becomes over-zealous. To make the play fit with his idea, Demarcy-Mota chose to remove a good chunk of overtly political text. While completely legitimate what this left him with is a watered down version of the play; the attempts to compensate by introducing a clock work office and other modern visuals fail to introduce a powerful enough context for the allegory to appear in.
The clash between the basic concept and the play makes the overall performance wobbly in all its elements: the ensemble gives out the impression of constantly shifting between ironic realism and an illustrative interpretation of absurd, while the set, designed by Yves Collet, is in part as grey and industrial as the gloomy everyday life depicted and in part a contraption intended to encapsulate the absent rhinoceroses. The ultimate result is one of two ideas quarrelling for supremacy – every time the mundane atmosphere seems to get ahead, another rhinoceros appears, roaring, its presence a reminder that there are things much more dangerous in society than the dullness of living for the weekend.