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A CurtainUp London Review
The set too is initially a little like something out of the movie Chocolat when everyone sits around in an idyllic café discussing niceties. The stage backdrop is full of pale wooden boards, delicately lit, and the women wear Audrey Hepburn/Grace Kelly 1950s dresses with tiny waists and full skirts and are topped by gorgeous, wide, sun shading hats. The men sit in the café and have intellectual conversations with each other French style. The Logician (Michael Begley) seems to make many errors in his analysis. That is until we are all shocked out of our complacency when the Housewife (Jacqueline Defferary) enters looking like Lady Macbeth after the murders and holding the body of her trampled cat. The set at the end resembles Armageddon.
Jean played by the wonderfully comedic Jasper Britton is a priggish, cantankerous man who is determined to reform his alcoholic, dishevelled friend Bérenger (Benedict Cumberbatch). Jean is full of suggestions as to how Bérenger should modify his behaviour, helps him smarten up and gives him a tie to wear and having succeeded on improving his appearance, then sets about his intellect. When later the tables are turned and Jean isn't feeling well, Bérenger visits him and suggests that he should see a doctor. Jean tells us that he only trusts vets. That may be because Jean is turning greyish green and almost all of the transformation takes places before our eyes, as in the The Incredible Hulk, Jean bursts out of his clothes on his way to complete rhinofication. His posture as he morphs into a rhino with his back muscles pulsing and rolling is a physical triumph. Benedict Cumberbatch, to be seen currently in a very different role in Atonement, gives Jean an independence of spirit that his pleasant, non-conformity has prepared him for but it is a lonely and agonising fate to be the last man around faced with the inevitable.
Rhinoceros sees the gradual metamorphosis at first, which rises to stampede levels later, of people into rhinoceroses. There have been parallels made with the rise of fascism and fascist regimes in Europe. The arrival of the rhinoceroses is a terrifying influence because of the havoc and destruction which these pachyderms charging through a small provincial French town kicks up. People don't choose to join the rhinoceroses, they just change into them and inevitably the rhinoceroses start to threaten the decreasing numbers of humans. So the spread is involuntary and unplanned, more like a rabidly, infectious disease than a political movement.
Dominic Cooke's direction is impeccable and this is likely to be the best ever version you could hope to see of Rhinoceros. The sets collapse dramatically and convincingly as the herd motors through town in clouds of dust and destruction but the metaphor seems laboured. The nine rhinoceroses onstage at the end didn't look as if they had understood it either! I look forward to seeing many of the same cast in Max Frisch's The Arsonists at the Royal Court in November.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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