«Rhinoceros Background Pack Contents About the production 2 Synopsis of the play 3 About the writer: Eugene Ionesco 5 Ionesco and Berenger 6 Ionesco ...»
There’s a queasy inevitability to the way Berenger’s closest friends and allies are seduced into their rhinocerotic conformity. Berenger’s bewildered, uncomprehending sense of betrayal is terrible to watch. When I go to the theatre, it’s those spine-tingling, hairs-standing-up moments that I’m longing for. They are sadly few and far between. But watching Dudard hurl a bed across the room is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen on stage.
It’s rare to encounter something so visceral, both in its alarming strangeness and its devastating logic. It’s what all writers should aim to do to their audience.
There has been plenty of murmuring about how new writing for the theatre is too small, too inward-looking, too intimate. Initially, as a timid new writer starting out, my instinct was to defend these smaller stories, and of course there will always be a place for them. But being a part of Rhinoceros has inspired me to set a tentative foot outside my comfort zone. I want to tell bigger, bolder stories and generate a bit of spine-tingling myself. Hopefully, there’ll be no more rhinoceritis for me.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Interview: Dominic Cooke What made you want to direct Rhinoceros?
Part of it was to do with the play, and part of it was to do with the timing. I’ve been thinking of doing it for years—I really like the fact that the play explores how a person’s identity is made up and how that relates to the world they are living in, how it’s possible for a person to lose their sense of self when there’s a pressure from a majority view around them. I thought it was also bold to use a such a metaphor and to extend it for that long. I also I didn’t really know how to do it which is always a good reason to do a play. I’m trying, in my first season as Artistic Director, to go back to some of the early plays that plug into a different tradition of Royal Court plays, plays that aren’t realistic or naturalistic.
Does the play still have a relevance in 2007?
We’ll find out—and that’s part of the exploration. We’ve resisted updating it because we thought that might limit that play’s meaning, but I think that there is so much more in the play than just the idea of conformity or the idea of what the rhinoceroses represent.
They were drawn from his own experience of the rise of the Nazis and from his own view that dogmatic systems of thought are dangerous, that the natural end of any system of thought is destruction. The things that he was dealing with would apply to our times in different ways. We’ve all obsessed with the end of the world at the moment—it’s something that’s appearing all over the culture and this is a play that deals with accommodation of extremism and turning a blind eye to potentially deadly forces. I think those things, in terms of an atmosphere, are very much around.
Having worked on it now, we’ve discovered that the play is about more than that: it’s a very personal play about Ionesco’s relationship with his father, about the betrayal he experienced as a child, about alcohol and depression which is something that he himself experienced. The more I work with it, the more I’m convinced that it’s a very personal play.
Ionesco has been criticised for being a writer of ideas. Has your experience of the play proved that theory wrong?
It’s certainly tested it. There are points in the writing that become about the writer showing off but there are other parts of the play that have a very organic momentum. He’s writing from personal © Royal Court Theatre, 2007
experience: he’s writing about being an outsider, about to be discovered. It’s like a science fiction play:
needing a drink in order to survive, about working in a very it’s an idea of what might happen, or could dull office (something which he had direct experience of). I happen, or could have happened. It takes a huge think the writer he’d like to be is not quite the writer that imaginative leap from everyone involved to he actually was: he couldn’t help but be quite personal in his make it credible, and I do think the credibility’s writing. He’s a very spontaneous writer: a lot of it is like a important. The play gets harder as it goes on.
first draft that hasn’t been revised, so you go through a The middle scenes are simpler: the scene in scene and it will sustain, and then there will be glitches that which Jean turns into a rhinoceros is so clearly make you wonder why something is there. But then he did- charted, and the office world is so well n’t really believe in logic, so applying logical processes to the observed. The first and last scenes are the play will always find a limit. hardest.
What are the challenges of directing this play?
I think that one of the challenges is trying to get beneath the clever, controlled quality of the writing to something much more felt (which I think is within the play). I think there’s a challenge in realising the rhinoceroses. It’s one thing realising the rhinoceroses on stage, but realising them offstage is very important. For the audience to buy into the play, because it’s such an unlikely thing to be taken over by rhinoceroses, you have to create the possibility that there could be a herd of animals running through the town, using sound and light. You come up against questions about realism—how real should you be? How much should you gesture something? That’s all © Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Interview: Benedict Cumberbatch How has the research you have conducted helped you to understand more about the play and your character?
If you look at Ionesco’s own life, you find a correlation between what he experienced and the character he wrote: they were both isolated, they both feel a deep sense of despair. Ionesco had a very oppressive father, he was an immigrant in two countries, and I think because of that he knew what it was like to be an outsider (he was viewed as a rather alien Eastern European type in France). They were both drinkers, they’re both riddled with melancholy and they both feel a sense of distance from the world that they’re trying to inhabit without really knowing why. The play finds a parallel in Vichy France and in the Nazi occupation which the French people experienced: the total isolation brought about by everyone falling into a goosestep and a dogma and a way of being that is incomprehensible to Berenger. And that goes beyond research—everyone can empathise with the feeling of being alone, or imagining that they are the only person who feels something, whether it’s making a comment in class then feeling like an idiot or taking a conviction that you hold into another group and being looked at in a strange way. The idea of isolation in the play is pretty much universal. More and more, we’re discovering that the world of the play isn’t absurd at all: Ionesco creates a very ordinary world in which a unique and extraordinary thing happens. Whatever Ionesco experienced during the Second World War must have seemed equally as surreal as rhinoceroses running through a town square. That’s why we’re trying to play the scenes as normally as possible, to create real dilemmas happening to real people.
Do you feel that Berenger is heroic?
At the beginning of the play, Berenger really doesn’t seem like much of a hero: he’s an unlikely hero, an accidental hero. But the way in which he stands up and resists everything that’s going on around him is heroic. For someone to take a stand when others are surrendering to a majority view is almost impossible to understand. I would find it almost impossible—I’d probably try and find an intellectual justification which helped me to ignore it. It’s easy to be cynical and difficult to disrupt the status quo. Berenger becomes utterly isolated from all the people he loves and respects. For someone to abandon logic and to operate from pure feeling is heroic. To die for a cause you believe in is heroic, and in that sense, by the end of the play, Berenger is definitely a hero.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Why doesn’t Berenger turn into a rhinoceros?
He is very apathetic. Throughout the play, though, his need is to belong (which should really make him a front runner for rhinocification). But he also has an anxiety which he’s unable to articulate, which results in low self esteem and alcohol abuse. He doesn’t think that he’s good enough for the people he loves or respects. Because he has a deep rooted need to question his existence, he can’t find an immediate way to identify with these rhinoceroses. He’s not terribly involved in the first appearance of the animals—he’s very slow to evolve opinions about them. He’s free from dogma and belief because he’s constantly questioning everything.
He has a goodness in him which gives him a certainty about the way he behaves.
Why were you attracted to the role?
I read it and began to wonder how the character gets to a point where he finds the strength to resist the rhinoceroses. The idea of someone standing up for what he believes in in an apocalyptic world, where all hope has gone, was really appealing to me. I spoke to Dominic [the play’s director] and his take on the play was so clear and well thought out that I became really intrigued with the play.
There has to be a good reason to do a play—theatre’s a struggling art form and there’s got to be a reason to get together and put on a play.
Beyond being an allegory of occupied France, the play speaks to modern concerns about fundamentalism, totalitarianism and the pressures of conformity. It’s got a lot to say about trying to escape orthodoxy, be that the orthodoxy of commodification or branding.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Interview: Zawe Ashton What sort of research have you undertaken to prepare for the role of Daisy?
I like to approach the play by creating a timeline of the character’s life—when they were born and what sort of events they would have seen. In this case, I’ve been researching the Second World War, the changing roles of women in society and the beginning of the civil rights movement. It’s important to immerse yourself in anything that would affect the temperature of your character. I found some office training videos from the 1950s on YouTube. One of them was called The Trouble With Women, and it was about trying to integrate women into the workplace, into a man’s world. This little film was about a boss who worked in a factory: he says that the trouble with women in the workplace is that they’re too emotional and can’t get on with the job. You can relate this sort of thing straight back to Daisy’s role as a secretary in an office filled with men. I’ve also been looking at some advice for young women about how to please your future husband which I found in a Home Economics textbook of that period.
How is Rhinoceros relevant to a modern audience?
The play is very relevant in terms of its paranoia, in terms of life as you know it being invaded or infiltrated, the shattering of everything that you hold dear. People’s ideals are turned upside down—which is very relevant today. Today’s we’re so conditioned by advertising and big business and we tend to ignore the real issues going on around us.
It’s a play about conformity and displacement which is really prevalent today—war breaks out and all we can do is go to IKEA.
Do you have sympathy for Daisy’s own domestic retreat inthe play?
You can’t play a part if you judge your character’s motives: even if you’re playing a psychopath, you need to find some point of identification and some kind of empathy. Daisy is simply reacting to her fear: we all deal with fear in different ways, and Daisy tries to plaster over anything that goes against her idea of the world she wants to inhabit. When the balance shifts in the play, she begins a huge act of displacement.
© Royal Court Theatre, 2007 Why do you think Daisy eventually turns into a rhinoceros?
The running theme of the play is that if you deny the rhinos’ existence and refuse to accept what’s happening, then you turn into one. I think she finally turns because she is Fascistic in the way she wants her life to be. She doesn’t want to accept any kind of disruption or threatening behaviour. In the final scene, she accepts the fact that she can’t fight it, and chooses to accept it instead.
Ionesco has been accused of misogyny in the way that he writes his female characters. Do you think this is true of Daisy?
I can see that argument because in the office scene, all of the male characters are described really full. He introduces Daisy with the words “young” and “blonde”. That reveals something about Ionesco!
But I don’t think that Daisy has been written in a chauvinistic way.
She’s quite a hysterical character, but the women of that era were under all sorts of pressure from society. He’s put a magnifying glass over an aspect of female behaviour and Daisy is the result. Daisy really runs the office where she’s employed as a secretary.
Do you find any aspects of Daisy’s character admirable?
She has a clear picture of what she wants from life, and as mad as that gets towards the end of the play, she pursues her ideal as far as she can. I can’t judge her just because she wants something simple from life. She’s the one that calls the Fire Brigade when her colleagues are in danger—she’s immensely organised and really knows how to utilise her skills.
What have you learned about your character from the movement sessions that you’ve participated in?
Women held themselves differently in the 1950s. Long strides were seen as ungainly so they too very small steps, you would never wear flat shoes into the office! The cinched in waists mean that you can’t slouch—if you did, it would cut of your breathing. At secretarial college, students would be awarded marks for their posture, their walks, the way they stand. When you stand, you need to hold your knees together so that there’s no chance that anyone could look up your skirt! I’m still trying to explore the difference between the way Daisy behaves in the office in comparison to the way that she behaves when she visits Berenger.