Theatre Editor KIERAN CORCORAN can’t quite pin down this play, nor can the play seem to pin itself down; neither of these points are to its credit.
Pembroke College, 18th-21st June, 2pm, £5
Directed by Ceci Mourkogiannis and Heather Williams
CONSUMER WARNING: This review doesn’t present a simple opinion, and may cause you to transform into a bigoted poster of ill-thought-out comments. If you just want to know whether to go to the show, you probably shouldn’t.
It took me a long time to decide what I think of this play – as my non-committal rating indicates, I’m still not certain.
It’s problematic to bring charges of incoherence against a play which is trying to be absurd, but ultimately the play’s big weakness is that it tries and fails. ‘Absurd’ is the kind of word which is used all the time in a very vague way, but can also mean something more specific and potent. Rhinoceros is the first, weak kind, synonymous with ‘a bit odd’; it lacked the flair and conviction needed to be really, affectingly absurd.
Photographs by Sonia Tong
Dialogue happened well enough, but it didn’t really make much sense to me. And I don’t just mean the normal kind of 2+2=4 sense – I wasn’t expecting that – but I was expecting an over-arching emotional or thematic sense to emerge, an idea of what makes Rhinoceros a play rather than just a bunch of things in a row. A more strident and stylised delivery could perhaps have provided this unity, but with the exception of Jennie King, who wailed, leapt and swooned like a good’un, everyone was too subdued and naturalistic.
That’s not to say they weren’t competent. There was an engaging rapport between Berenger (James Morris) and Jean (Sam Curry), though both were better in Amadeus last term. Fred Maynard was evenly accomplished in his dual roles as logician and Dudard the annoying colleague. His eventual transformation into a rhinoceros (happens to almost everyone – absurdism, right?) was the one which felt to me like it had the most weight behind it.
But even though parts were compelling, they felt misdirected – funny moments, or occasional lines delivered in a silly voice never really added up to comedy, nor did the subtext of transforming-into-a-rhino being some weird political allegory ever really coalesce – which is perhaps a good thing because that’s quite a rubbish subtext to have, Ionesco.
In aesthetics the play does well – rustic wooden furniture and Dolmio-advert costumes pin the time-period nicely, and the gimp-leather costume and wireframed papier-mâché headgear for the intruding rhino was fittingly incongruous. One of the best things the production did was to have a band present throughout to provide atmospheric music. Rhino sound-effects came from trumpets and hitting bins, which was also great. But these are periphery things and can’t mend a flawed production by themselves.
Sometimes it felt like things were being done right. There were nice, though infrequent ensemble moments: simultaneous exclamations, noises or movements that gave a pleasing weirdness to proceedings. But they were too few and couldn’t infuse the play with enough verve to save it from being mostly quite dull. It’s an anticlimactic criticism to make, but a true one – I was yawning at 3 in the afternoon.
As you can probably tell by now, Rhinoceros demanded an uncomfortably large amount of thought from me for a May Week show, but it wasn’t especially productive thought and I don’t feel any better for it. In a week as packed as this it’s a brute fact that there’s almost certainly a better way to spend your time.