Arriving within weeks of the departure of the Donmar production of Absurdia, Dominic Cooke's Royal Court production of Eugene ionesco's erstwhile Court success, Rhinoceros, reminds us of an age when theatrical absurdism ran rampant -though perhaps not quite as uncontrollably so as the mammals that give this play its title. Does that allow the play to charge its way into the 21st century, virtues intact? Well, yes and no. For maximum enjoyment of this production, one has to slog through a humorless beginning and a lot of mistimed, misapplied comedy - one character goes on about a rhino having trampled her poor little kitty witty - before arriving at the actual feast: the face-off between Benedict Cumberbatch's immediately likable Berenger and what would seem to be the rest of the world, which has arrayed itself as a stampeding embodiment of mob role on an order to make the rampaging lynch mobs in Parade look comparatively benign.
Ionesco's text has always been held up as a defining moral parable, so it's interesting to note just how elastic its indignation would seem to be. In place of the long associations with the creeping isms (Nazism, of course, chief among them) that were sweeping Europe at the time of this play's inception, one can now see Berenger holding out as the last defense against religious fundamentalism, corporatisation - really any pretty big minority that, as Martin Crimp's new version of the play makes clear, is seen to be outgrowing, leaving the apparently mild Berenger out of life's onward melee. Berenger is a fiendishly difficult role not least because it's so reactive how much more immediately rewarding to be Jasper Britton, who steps superbly into the shoes of the late Zero Mostel as Jean, the initially smug, self-satisfied compatriot of Berenger's who transforms most dramatically into a naked, snarling beast in time for the first act curtain.
Britton effects the transformation with his customary skill, though it is Cumberbatch who has to hold together a play that gathers in power as it puts to one side its rather tiresome verbal gamesmanship and focuses instead on our solitary hero's desperate, anxious desire to renew the human race. I'm not sure that Berenger's abiding principle - Woe betide the man who refuses to conform- doesn't raise more questions than it answers surely, even Ionesco acknowledged that there are moments when social conformity constitutes our best defense from anarchy. But the play lives as a cri de coeur because of the human face brought to it by Cumberbatch, who inhabits the play's final section stalking an Anthony Ward set that has more or less fallen to bits around him: a scenic collapse that was itself almost the London stage norm not that long ago.
The supporting cast does better by its men than its women, bandaged, dishevelled Berenger after the intermission joining a suited Paul Chahidi, whose Dudard is quick to insist on the good cause of the rhinocerisation of their world. (Dudard's defense comes before the rhinos go so far as to start phoning.)With the memory still in the mind of last spring's Equus revival, and its encircling stage full of horses, Cooke here ultimately gives over the compact Court stage to a surfeit of rhinos I'm not sure I've ever seen a production elsewhere that included a credit for rhino heads (Jonathan Beakes takes the honors on that front.) All double credit, then, to a leading actor who must show us Berenger beginning to envy what he reviles, his dilemma that of any ind