Like lobsters, I associate rhinoceroses with the absurd and surreal – Dali was fascinated by them, Ionesco had a town’s inhabitants turn into them. ThisEgg’s Unconditional opens with a rhinoceros, the last male northern white rhino, standing tall in a theatre. But the last male northern white rhino is really dead, and the last two of its species alive in the world today are a mother and a daughter.
It started with Josie Dale-Jones deciding to make a show with her mother, Stefanie Mueller, who’s also an actor and theatre-maker. Because of their busy work schedules, their R&D periods were spread out over two years, and each time they came together to rehearse, the world had changed around them, and so the show, too, changed. What’s the show about? asks Dale-Jones to her mother, and the answer is: kind of, everything. The world. Facing the world.
Most of the show consists of a meta-narrative about Mueller and Dale-Jones travelling to the theatre where they are about to perform the premiere of the first version of this show. But what begins as an everyday ‘nightmare’ journey of frantic uber journeys and rail-replacement buses soon veers off the road and into the land of the absurd – there’s a high-flying businessman holding the bus at gunpoint, an old lady who dies in her seat, a storm flooding the theatre. Is there a war going on outside?
While tending towards the apocalyptic, it all manages to feel supremely British: the sound of rainfall over John Biddle’s driving, ever-present score drenches everything in an atmosphere at once spooky and familiar – they’re hard, heavy storm droplets, not the flimsy drizzle of an Edinburgh summer, but also the rain on the window of days spent home sick as a child (in perhaps the loveliest turn of phrase I’ve heard at the Fringe, Mueller describes her daughter, steaming-wet under hot stage lights, as looking ‘like a cup of tea’). There’s a cast of very British characters, all played with peerless comic precision: a surly, sexist technician, a jokey bus-driver, a kindly old lady – hell, a riot is started by a woman demanding an apology from a queue-jumper.
Dale-Jones and Mueller take obvious delight in fiction-making. It’s a superbly crafted narrative, ingeniously conjured with bare-bones theatricality. It has the meandering, evening stroll-like quality of an Italo Calvino story – it’s not often you have absolutely no idea where a story is going, despite already having been told how it ends. It’s this pure joy in yarn-weaving which offsets the horror of the real global crises to which it is always alluding.
Because through all this, the real world seeps in like rain through a roof – a homeless man wanders around, ignored by everyone else; the storm, it transpires, is a climate catastrophe; the queue-jumper becomes an embodiment of all the abused power and privilege of men.
The world of the play is absurd because, well, the world is absurd, and an increasingly terrifying one to bring a child into. At the heart of this flight of fancy is Josie and Stefanie – mother and daughter, two endangered rhinos – taking a stand against a world which is intent on raining on us until we drown.
Unconditional is on at Pleasance Courtyard until 26th August, as part of the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.