Two men, Jean (Patrick Farrelly) and Bérenger (Brian Bolton) are sitting together talking when a rhinoceros charges past. Soon they find that their friends and colleagues are also transforming into rhinos. With this as its overview, it is quickly apparent that the French avant-garde playwright Eugène Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, is of the Theatre of the Absurd genre. But even this categorisation is deceptive as the work has substance too, behind its ridiculous foundation, making it easy to appreciate its status as a popular, if not iconic work of the type. And in the hands of Heartbeast Theatre, Rhinoceros becomes more than just its alleged parable about French collaboration with the Nazis.
The story centres on Bérenger, a man initially criticised for his drinking, lack of punctuality and laissez-faire approach to life. When a herd of rhinoceroses take over the town he is one of many involved in argument over the beasts’ number of horns. A logician is consulted but opinion remains divided… initially at least.
In accordance with its genre, there is a lot happening on stage to initially engage and then maintain audience interest. The first half of the play is filled with great comic moments. Characters travel in a huddle and movement is sometimes random and rapid fire. But everything is purposeful in juxtaposition to the on-stage realism audiences are probably use to seeing. Action is of the slapstick sort and creative costuming of oversized suits and fake facial hair create a cartoonish feel, especially when the action is periodically interrupted by the thunderous sounds of rampaging rhinos as cast members interact in the audience space with grunting, snorting sounds. The result is energetic performances of often riddled dialogue.
Often the language lacks any real meaning, but yet dialogue says so much as the ultimately intellectual satire is a play about being and existence. As so, it has much to say about dissatisfaction and disillusionment, and in examination of these themes, Bolton makes for an excellent everyman Bérenger, the last man struggling against the chaos. Also of particular note is Roy Ogden, as the logician determined to expound the logic of syllogisms at every opportunity, leading to some humourous discussion about what makes a cat, a cat, for example. Although Bérenge’s final monologue ponder of the concepts of conformity as opposed to individuality, drags a little, there is much earlier, valuable existential pondering in characteristic absurdist reaction against Christian ideology. And a wonderful sequence emerges in Act Two when a stylised fight is set to an instrumental ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – a clever reminder of the fine line between real life and fantasy.
It takes a brave company to tackle a play of such extremes as Rhinoceros. Heartbeast Theatre both embraces its deliberate break of the norms of conventional theatre and layers it in evolution of the work to contemporary times. Particularly as an introduction to Theatre of Absurd, this is a work well worth seeing. Not only is it easier to unpack than more-dense Beckett, but there is even a raucous rhino song to fill its Spring Hill Reservoir setting.
Venue: Spring Hill Reservoirs
Dates: 13 – 28 October 2017
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Bouncers (heartBeast) – theatre review
- Mouthpiece (QT) – theatre review
- The Real Housewives of Brisbane (BAT) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television