I’m glad I can speak French to something of an intermediate level because nobody told me this was a bilingual performance, and French theatre company Theatraverse weren’t going easy on their English speaking audience. Imagine Ionesco’s absurdist writing half in English, half in French for someone that can only speak one of those languages and doesn’t know a word of the other – all you’d be able to understand is the word rhinoceros, it would be an absolute nightmare. So I recommend seeing this with some knowledge of the plot, and going over what you supposedly learned in those French lessons you supposedly paid attention to.
Of course, the language barrier is essential to this play, but I think it’s very hard to stomach a show if you only understand half of it – I could barely keep up and that’s extremely trying for audience members. Yet it’s also a very direct way of confronting your audience with the themes of Rhinocerous. It’s a brave move from Theatraverse which is definitely appreciated but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable performance. Joanne Allan’s adaptation is brilliant I think, it retains Ionesco’s wit in English, and the repetition of lines is kind to an audience. But the script is less kind as the play progresses. In Rhinoceros, everyone in town turns into a rhinoceros except Bérenger (Guillaume Paulette). By the end, he’s the only one left and it’s an insightful moment when he is not just excluded from all the rhinoceroses, but alienated further still by speaking his monologue in French. I’m full of admiration for Allan’s concept for this show, but a small part of me that knows is sad that it isn’t all understood. This play makes you think hard and I hope other audience members are compelled to buy the play and explore it as a whole themselves.
As a production, there are so many facets to it that it goes from being a show that makes you think hard, to simply hard work. I could say this and that about the complex production; their malleable use of panels to set different scenes, the heightened acting style that borders on pointing, and of course the unfortunate power cut that occurred halfway through the show (absolutely well done to them for carrying on barely batting an eyelid). All of this reflects the insightfulness of the production, but it can feel a little cluttered at times. In comparison, the effectiveness of the simple act of smearing a grey, clay-like gloop across the actors’ bodies to represent their transformation into rhinoceroses is simple but so effective.
Jean’s (Siva Nagapattinam Kasi) transformation is vocally impressive in particular: heavy, full of fury and spot on. The voice of Alexander Maclachlan as Mr Papillon is a jarring touch as it’s so far from earnest (as unseen, ominous voices often are). Paulette as Bérenger is frantic and pathetic, and whilst that’s how he should be, he fails to make me care about his character’s journey. Melanie Tanneau as Daisy is in contrast very charming to watch, but her and Paulette’s amour isn’t there. The ensemble lack the feeling they are an ensemble at times.
Rhinoceros is Ionesco’s masterpiece, and Allan has tried to do it justice with a limited cast and production scale, but big vision. These things just didn’t gel so well and therefore sadly falls short.
*** – 3 Stars
Rhinoceros plays at Venue 13 as part of the Edinburgh Festival until 18 August.