Rhinoceros

Published April 17, 2008

You go out for a quiet Sunday brunch, attempting to enjoy the open air and trying to clear your head of a hangover, when you are rudely interrupted by a couple of rampaging rhinoceroses. How rude! So begins Ionesco's satire, Rhinoceros, staged in a new translation by Martin Crimp at the Royal Court Downstairs. Matthew Amer was at the first night stampede.

The arrival of the horned herbivores creates, as one might expect, a certain amount of uproar among the locals, who can't find a logical explanation for the arrival of the imposing interlopers. Yet, as time progresses, more and more of the villagers come round to the idea that life on four feet could be better than two, taking the plunge into the rhino's thick-skinned world. All except Bérenger, who stays true to his non-conformist ideals to the end, never choosing the herd mentality.

As a didactic tale, Rhinoceros is not difficult to fathom. From the very start, Benedict Cumberbatch's Bérenger is berated by his best friend Jean for his slovenly appearance, lack of drive and ambition, and generally being different to the other townspeople who all tow the line. Jean is the perfect example of how to behave; uptight, worried about being an upstanding example, turned out in a crisp suit, bow tie and slicked hair.

Around the moral, Martin Crimp's translation weaves a web of comedy played straight in an implausible situation. Disbelieving villagers worry about the exact genus of rhinoceros they have seen, an all-knowing logician tries to make sense of an entirely illogical situation and a wealth of witticisms cut through the ridiculous nature of it all.

Dominic Cooke keeps the action moving at a charging speed, never getting too bogged down in ludicrousness, while Anthony Ward's set holds many a surprise behind its non-rhino-proofed walls and Ian Dickinson's sound design has more rumbling of feet and baying roars than the first day of the Harrods sale.

Rhinoceros runs at the Royal Court Downstairs until 15 December.

MA