First Night: Rhinoceros, Royal Court, London

A fine performance but the wrong choice of opener
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Yes, the Royal Court is on a real roll. Yes, Dominic Cooke has just the genius and kick that this venue needs. We seem, thrillingly, to be re-entering the era of Stephen Daldry. It's fist-bitingly exciting. All the same, why are we being subjected to Rhinoceros? The answer is, in one sense, dead easy.

The Royal Court is at once the most innovative and the most traditional of theatres, by which I mean to say it knows its own history and it wants to abide by it own history.

Dominic Cooke is making his mark by re-establishing the theatre in the guise of its founding father, George Devine. It's a misguided notion to think the Royal Court was all kitchen sink and John Osborne, In fact, Devine was very European-minded as is the Court these days under the tutelage not just of Cooke, who has nurtured some excellent Russian drama, but of the International Department under Elyse Dodgson.

So why Rhinoceros? It feels to me flat-out mistake. It's an act of piety, to be sure. Ionesco's play was one of the first shows to be put on at Court. It's quite brilliantly directed. Cooke strikes me as possibly the most gifted director in the country (equally able in the classics and new work). And yet not even his flair can rescues a play that seems dated and dead.

It doesn't help that the season appears to be themed so that each play is about standardisation – the fear of being out on a limb, the pressure to conform, the longing to be no different. But here's the snag. Marius Von Mayenberg's The Ugly One seems to be me a much better play on the same theme than the venerable, old-hat Rhinoceros. Peter Hall once directed a musical of this play at Chichester where the hilarious twist was that Gerard Scarfe did the design, and one would have to say that, where rhinoceros-standardisation is concerned, the deity got in first, gazumping Scarfe's sterling efforts.

Cooke's stunning production does not make the same error. It whips up the tension brilliantly, with its offstage suggestion of a stampede. It's lucid, expertly orchestrated and yet the play, an Absurdist fable about the pressure to conform (Fassist, Communist, you name it) has not survived its own occasion.

Benedict Cumberbatch is marvellous in the lead. Cooke is a great actors' director and he releases something in Cumberbatch we have not seen before. On Sunday, Cumberbatch was spot-on on the TV in Stuart – a Life Backwards with Tom Hardy who is surely the Marlon Brando of our era. Here, in Martin Crimp's excellent translation, he surpasses himself. All the same, I was impressed and bored.

Comments