Serge Maggiani and Valerie Dashwood in Rhinoceros (copyright Jean-Louis Fernandez)
Serge Maggiani and Valerie Dashwood in Rhinoceros (copyright Jean-Louis Fernandez)

At the outset of Théâtre de la Ville’s Eugène Ionesco production, visiting the Barbican’s Dancing around Duchamp surrealist season, the stage is full of chairs. But this is not The Chairs, rather it is the absurdist playwright’s later work Rhinocéros, which generally opens in a small town square. In Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s staging, however, the stylised design becomes part of the story, emphasising the disorientation of the characters right from the beginning. It makes for a stylish, sinister and visually impressive production, but also one that feels heavy-handed, in danger of swamping the insidious horror of the piece with effects.

Ionesco’s 1959 play, chronicling the gradual transformation of a town’s population into rhinoceroses, works as a dark comic parable about the spread of fascism – or any fanatical ideology. But there is a wider resonance to it too, as it depicts that slow, subtle shift in collective thinking that can affect issues as trivial as fashion or as serious as religious intolerance. The oddity of the metamorphosis at the centre of the play makes it more universally applicable, more unsettling and less easily dismissed: at the end, even Bérenger, the lone human left, is regretting his now abnormal appearance.

Demarcy-Mota emphasises this continuing significance with his contemporary, stylised staging. In the first scene the actors scramble amid the chairs, as if hit by a blast wave, as the first rhinoceros thunders past. The office of the second act breaks apart, sending characters sliding down the tilting floors, as the ground literally shifts from beneath their feet. In the final act, in a remarkable effect, a herd of sinister rhinoceros heads suddenly looms out of the darkness at the back of the stage. It’s visually striking, creating a dystopian, nightmarish picture.

But the drawback is that the concept feels over-insistent. Stylised and frantic from the outset, it loses the absurdity of the rhino’s presence on the streets of a sleepy little town and the sense of a mundane world being gradually transformed into a nightmare. And the office staff’s scrabbling antics in their disintegrating workplace make for some pretty unfunny slapstick.

The tightly choreographed ensemble, however, is strong, led by superb performances from Serge Maggiani as Bérenger and Hugues Quester as his friend Jean. Quester’s transformation into a rhinoceros is tremendous: horribly transfixing. And Maggiani makes a poignant, ambivalent Bérenger: a shambling outsider and wise clown, whose social inadequacy and inability to conform make him the reluctant voice of reason.

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