Eugene Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, was written at the end of the 1950s, a decade that for many, especially the young, seemed drab and overwhelmingly conservative. In 1960, the year Rhinoceros was first performed in London, men and women could still be hung by the state, any act of homosexuality was punishable by law, plays were vigorously censored, and young men conscripted into the armed forces. But in this revolutionary play, London audiences on the cusp of a new and very different decade were presented with a radical vision of the world, and in Berenger a character with the spark of individuality and rebellion that was to become so characteristic of the 1960s. Berenger refuses to toe the line, take the easy option, and do what everyone else is doing simply because it’s easier. He resists the herd instinct, won’t conform or join in, and but instead he stands out against the headlong charge of the masses and the consequent trampling of individuality underfoot.
This new translation by Martin Crimp, directed by Dominic Cooke with Benedict Cumberbatch as Berenger is the first major UK revival of the play since 1960. It tells an extraordinary story first labelled ‘as theatre of the absurd’ by critics but now perhaps better labelled, if a label is required, as a work of magic realism. We see a small French provincial town going about its everyday humdrum business of work and the pursuit of pleasure only to be gradually overtaken by something very strange ...
Dominic Cooke’s company visited Colchester Zoo at the end of their first week of rehearsals to look at rhinoceroses: majestic, almost pre-historic, beasts with tiny eyes and armour-plated skin. Imagining one of these beasts, let alone a herd of them, charging towards you is enough to give you nightmares. Ionesco’s play is often very funny but it is also frightening, made so by the subtle but ever present undercurrent of fear that in performance perhaps, just perhaps, a real trumpeting thudding angry beast is actually going to smash through the scenery and charge into the stalls.
This Stagework project has been generously supported by The Dorset Foundation.
The cast of Rhinoceros
Daisy — Zawe Ashton Logician — Michael Begley Jean — Jasper Britton Grocer Man/Dudard — Paul Chahidi Berenger — Benedict Cumberbatch Housewife/Monsieur Jean’s wife — Jacqueline Defferary Boss of café/Fireman — David Hinton Botard — Lloyd Hutchinson Waitress — Claire Prempeh Grocer Wife/Madame Boeuf — Alwyne Taylor Old Gentleman/Monsieur Papillon — Graham Turner
The creative team
Direction — Dominic Cooke Design — Anthony Ward Lighting — Johanna Town Sound — Ian Dickinson Music — Gary Yershon Movement — Sue Lefton