Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 27 September, 2007

Periodically during the Royal Court's revival of Eugène Ionesco's 1959 Absurdist classic, a rumbling, thundering noise is heard. Sometimes this is sound designer Ian Dickinson's indication of the trampling herd of pachyderms offstage; sometimes it is a Circle Line Tube train passing a few subterranean feet away. I cannot believe that the aural similarity was not noticed and approved of by director Dominic Cooke: any everyday sound might herald the beginning of an unsettling stampede.

The play, in which protagonist Bérenger grows increasingly distressed as the inhabitants of his town turn into rhinoceroses, is usually read as an indictment of Nazism or more specifically of the mass psychology that tolerated its rise; its programming here corroborates that view. (It is shortly to be joined in repertoire by Max Frisch's Absurd anti-Nazi parable The Arsonists.) But it can be read in relation to any spreading social or cultural meme: from anti-paedophile witch-hunts to Celebrity Big Brother, from fascism to Facebook. One could interpret it as applying to either side of the War on Terror, or equally to both... but that would be to engage in the moral relativism which the play also condemns in the character of Dudard (a fine performance by Paul Chahidi), whose even-handed, thoughtful approach leads just as surely to acquiescence and big horns.

Martin Crimp's new version is characteristically precise, with subtle deployments of both clichéd turns of phrase and higher-flown ludicrousness such as "I do not deny the rhinocerotic facts". Anthony Ward's design mixes obvious touches (we can immediately guess that that back wall of planking will eventually be splintered) with gorgeous ones: the rhino masks and figures themselves are more realistic than I have ever seen in a production of the play. When Jasper Britton's Jean (whose body language has been gradually, gloriously transforming throughout the scene) disappears into the bathroom and a rather larger figure emerges, the moment has all the beauty as well as all the brute presence of Dürer's woodcut of a rhino. Benedict Cumberbatch as Bérenger works up over two and a half hours from his more usual relaxation to an exhilaratingly against-type agitation; the supporting cast includes the likes of Jacqueline Defferary and Lloyd Hutchinson, who no doubt will have larger roles in the partner production.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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