Thursday 10 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Rhinoceros at the Lyceum, or, A Missed Opportunity

About two thirds of the way through this mediocre production an overt reference to Donald Trump and the United States is crowbarred in. It was at that point that it struck me that a much more powerful production of this play relating to matters closer to home would have been possible. It doesn't surprise me that this isn't the version given.

I previously saw this play in a visually striking production by Theatre de la Ville-Paris at the Barbican in (I was slightly horrified to realise) 2013. That version also succeeded in really conveying the sense of fear. It wasn't, I think, that the setting was massively more realistic than it is here, but it managed to make it feel much more real.

The play, for anybody who doesn't know it, concerns the transformation of increasing numbers of the population of a small French village (and, eventually by extension, the world) from humans into rhinoceroses. This allows, in theory, for exploration of questions about the nature of humanity, about standing apart from or belonging to the herd, about what we should really value in life. In the context of our present political crises (in Scotland, Britain and abroad) it should have a powerful resonance. Towards the end, this production begins to find more of this, but it isn't enough.

The first issue is one of design. This involves, to begin with, a great many chairs. My heart misgave me when an actress spent several minutes before the house lights went down carefully placing chairs on the stage, and attaching them to wires so they can be flown when the first rhinoceros charges down the street. As the show progresses these chairs get progressively strewn about the stage – I have seen this too many times before. Apart from the chairs (and occasional other pieces of furniture) this is a fairly abstract design and that lack of a concrete sense of place contributes, I think, to undermining the potential power of the piece. Then there's the process of shrinking the stage via a series of platforms – this is a nice idea in theory, but the reality is the staging remains too open for the necessary sense of claustrophobia to be evoked – there are too many obvious avenues of escape. Overall, there is nothing really distinctive to this staging, and the familiarity of much of it isn't compensated for by finding real punch in movement or stillness.

Then there's Zinnie Harris's translation which commits two sins. There is far too much swearing so that, as so often in such a case, this very quickly loses any impact. Secondly, there's a very tiresome section in the first scene making overt reference to the fact that the play is appearing in the Edinburgh International Festival – somebody does this pretty much every year at the EIF and I'm fed up with it.

Finally, there are the performances. The ensemble is a mix of Scottish and Turkish performers (the show is a collaboration between the Lyceum and Istanbul based DOT Theatre). The acting is all perfectly solid but nobody every really gripped me at that level where it becomes impossible to look away. Part of the problem (again a familiar one) is people start shouting far too soon and as a result have nowhere vocally to go as the tension ratchets up (there is generally not enough nuance to the delivery of the lines).

I suggested at the beginning of this piece that there was a really sharp opportunity for contemporary commentary here. Imagine, for a moment, if the unspoken subtext of this piece had been the pressure exerted on people to conform to a particular position in the Scottish independence referendum. My personal experience of that referendum was of the pressure to keep silent if you were a No, of finding it no longer possible to speak about politics with old friends. No doubt people on the other side of the divide had parallel experiences. You don't need overt political references in this play to give it impact, but to have hinted at such things here could have made this, what I think it should be, a really uncomfortable watch. The Trump link, by comparison, feels thin. It doesn't surprise me the Scottish road was not taken, partly because of the funding behind this production (from the Scottish Government) but also because, I think, there is still a reluctance, at least in the Scottish arts world, to really confront the unpleasant side of the independence referendum. But it is a missed opportunity.

Overall, a missable opening to this year's main stage theatre programme.

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