Facts must be faced: Plays are usually neglected for a reason. Why has a play which received its U.K. premiere in 1960 directed by Orson Welles with a cast headed by Laurence Olivier languished in relative obscurity with no mainstream British revival ever since? Fashion, largely. Ionesco’s bizarre satirical pun on the herd instinct, “Rhinoceros,” has its problems, but Dominic Cooke’s splendid revival makes the best possible case for the return of an entertaining, unsettling play.
Like many absurdist writers, Ionesco starts out by framing his arguments semantically. When disheveled Berenger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his punctilious friend Jean (Jasper Britton) are slightly thrown by the unexpected rampaging of a couple of rhinoceroses through their French town, they argue about definition and language.
As in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” there’s a dark metaphor here as gradually everyone in the town is taken over by, as Martin Crimp’s astute translation amusingly puts it, “rhinocerisation.”
Ionesco cunningly matches ever-darkening tone and content. Witty — though over-long — linguistic debates fall away, replaced by more philosophical and urgently political arguments as the town is overrun.
In Cooke’s sharp-eyed production, all this is mirrored in Anthony Ward’s design. Initially, everything is hyper-clean — all white floor and slatted wood for the sunlit outdoor cafe. But as the initially heard but unseen rhinos wreak havoc — the sound design for the off-stage animals is thunderingly impressive — everything literally falls apart.
Britton is powerful in the pivotal role of Jean. His physical journey from roundly smug self-satisfaction to strung-out worried to, finally, roaring, bent double almost-rhino is peculiarly affecting.
Zawe Ashton lacks the technique to pull off the over-bright character of Daisy, whose perfectly dressed demeanor needs more tragic underpinning. Elsewhere, however, there are zesty cameos, not least from Lloyd Hutchinson as the staunchly left-wing, conspiracy theorist clerk and Michael Begley as the lofty logician.
By the final scene, rhino heads are looming out of the woodwork to creepy effect, underlining the feeling that the play is both a horror story and a warning, a kind of cross between Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” years before either were written.
Ionesco never precisely nails down what the rhinocerisation is about. Is it a metaphor for people being swallowed up by a fascist political movement? Is it about the collective desire for conformity?
This vagueness, however, is not a weakness. By being unspecific, he allows auds to focus on the effects of creeping societal change. Through the disintegration of Berenger — expertly charted by an increasingly desperate Cumberbatch — auds watch an individual inexorably forced to engage with the world around him.
The play’s predictability ought to be a problem, but Cooke’s acute production proves otherwise. Watching Berenger struggle to come to terms with the disturbing and distressingly different society engulfing him is horribly watchable. That this is done via comedy gives it added power.