Tinderbox Theatre Company gets European culture so well it must share some DNA. Director Patrick J O’Reilly, who trained in Paris, brilliantly adapted Gogol’s short story The Nose a few years back, and now his version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is an expressionist thing of beauty. It’s a dazzling version of the Absurd mid-twentieth century drama about the dangers of conformity that cleverly locates it in that most programmed environment, the video game. So RHINO, with the outstanding actors physically jerking, twitching and shadow playing the computerised figures in the Naughton Studio , presents us with a world of proscribed movement – and destiny.
It is darkly funny. You'll long remember Nicky Hartley grimacing as Mme Boeuf mourning her murdered pussy as the rhino gains ground, and is then recognized as her husband with whom she disappears. The lighting, design and direction find the mad humour that characterizes this genre. But this reinvented Rhinoceros is also deadly serious. And as the characters debate the logic of whether they spotted a single or double horned creature crossing their ordinary town square, or the illusion thereof, the allegorical tale turns nasty. But not immediately, and the human lives on various levels pan out intriguingly.
We meet the French denizens, including alcoholic Berenger (excellent Richard Clements) who is our Chaplinesque lodestar and moral compass, standing out longest against the lure of the horny hoofs, the green (not grey, but that’s Eugene Ionesco) hairless skin and the singing and dancing of the rhinos. For much as in Animal Farm, the unthinking beasts take over and with Nazism a vivid memory when this was written, plus Russian events, this narrative has a real menace. Gradually it builds, then at speed with a marvellous scene as super confident, arrogant yet attractive Jean (Shaun Blaney) feels unwell and undergoes the transformation. The metamorphosis left him powering forward with the now universally confident gait of the animals. The actors' physical work throughout was tremendous.
One thing can maybe defeat totalitarianism, and that is love, as Orwell indicated in 1984, yet although Berenger and the glamorous Daisy (Vicky Allen, puzzlingly described as the young blonde) attempt a private world, it cannot succeed against the lure of uniformity, of belonging. Who knows if they're right and we're wrong, she muses, displaying a cute moral equivalence. It’s significant the costumes are monochrome throughout - no room for shades of grey in this not so brave new world.
Can he resist succumbing to his animal nature, the one enthusiastically embraced by the mass. He moves towards the herd, tempted by their “raucous, yet charming” singing. This 1959 allegory still has resonance in an anti-intellectual age. Spending 80 minutes in the theatre considering the fragility of human identity was a Belfast International Arts Festival treat.
Rhino continues at The Lyric Theatre (lyric.co.uk) until October 28