When Steven McNicoll’s pompous Jean accuses Robert Jack’s slacker Berenger of being an immigrant in Zinnie Harris’s new translation of Rhinoceros, the atmosphere changes. Literally. Thanks to Chris Davey’s lighting, the white walls of Tom Piper’s set turn from a golden sunburst of Middle Eastern calm into a poisonous pink.
Until this point, director Murat Daltaban of Istanbul’s DOT Theatre has jollied us along into a world of knockabout inconsequentiality, the excellent McNicoll and Jack playing up like a vaudeville double act, with their status games and physical clowning. The comic banter of Eugène Ionesco’s 1960 play is bright and breezy, suggesting nothing more dangerous than small-town squabbles and minor romantic intrigues. Even the cat with the outsize head (think Frank Sidebottom) seems more cute than sinister.
But we’re starting to sense something darker is afoot. The Arabic rhythms of the score created live on stage by Oguz Kaplangı (who also doubles as the cat) keep giving way to an ominous rumbling from the back of the stalls, accompanied by a chilling wash of copper turquoise. A rhinoceros is at large – or is it two? – and the first instinct of the citizens is to deny it or, like Berenger, to treat it as a matter of no concern.
But it is concerning and, as the play goes on, performed without interval in a single, intense sitting, so the comically incongruous becomes the disturbingly absurd. The rampaging rhinos are, of course, a metaphor (it sounds heavy-handed to spell it out, but it works in practice) for the dark social forces lying just out of sight. They are the brutish mob, indifferent to nuance and dismissive of diversity, whose viewpoint lies dormant until provoked by – dare we suggest – a referendum or a presidential campaign. Suddenly, the neighbours and colleagues who, yes, have their foibles and their petty animosities but have always seemed basically decent human beings, now turn into unrecognisably thick-skinned creatures with hate in their eyes. And as the walls close in on Piper’s set, confining and constraining Berenger’s very movements, the temptation to run with the pack grows ever more intense. Maybe they’re not as extreme as they seem. Maybe they’re just moving with the times. Maybe it really is the moment for punitive action. This Rhinoceros looks like Turkey, sounds like Scotland and tastes like Trump’s America.
It’s a bold, brilliant production and only the first of three in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival to be written by Harris. Still to come is Dominic Hill’s stunning staging of Oresteia: This Restless House for the Citizens Theatre, while running throughout the month at the Traverse is the mesmerising debut of Meet Me At Dawn.
Directed by Orla O’Loughlin with characteristic lushness, it’s a two-hander about the aftermath of a tragic boating accident. Although Harris’s theme is grief, she recognises the pitfalls of trying to dramatise an essentially inert state. Hamlet aside, your average tragedy does not start with death, because what happens next is too open-ended. The playwright’s solution is to freeze the moment in suspended animation and, for the first part of the play at least, to turn it into a kind of emotional detective story.
The challenge for Neve McIntosh, in a masterclass performance of lyrical control as the bereaved Robyn, is to figure out exactly what life-changing event has struck her. She finds herself washed up on a craggy island with Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s lucid and laidback Helen and, although their relationship appears to be carrying on as it did before, there are details that don’t add up.
Like Lisa in Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World Of Dissocia, she is in a credible place full of logical holes. And much like Rhinoceros, the line between fact and fiction is blurred. Consequently, while being subjected to grief’s seven stages, from denial to anger to loneliness, she joins the audience in sorting the compelling emotional distortions from the unbelievable truth of what has happened. It’s a sombre, fraught, controlled scream of a play.
There’s yet more impressive Scottish work in the EIF from Vox Motus in the form of Flight, a sumptuous installation at the Church Hill Theatre Studio that fits into no easy category. Perhaps you’d call it a live graphic novel or a visual radio play or the kind of optical experiment the Victorians would have delighted in, sitting at the interface of magic and mechanics.
To see it, you take your seat in a one-person booth at the side of a giant rotating cylinder. You put on headphones and lean forward as a series of miniature tableaux passes before you, each boxed in like a frame in a comic book. You see desert landscapes and dark oceans, tiny figures picking even tinier fruit, ominous expressionist tower blocks and bleak motorways at night.
What transpires in the production (if “production” is even the right word) by Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds is a harsh tale about two refugee siblings, Kabir and Aryan, taking the perilous journey from Kabul to London, via Tehran, Istanbul, Athens, Rome and Paris. Adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Hinterland by novelist Caroline Brothers, the story is sadly familiar, with its scenes of exploitation and abuse, its moments of hope and its acts of desperation, but is told in a way that makes it absolutely compelling. It’s as exquisite as it is genre defying.
Finally, three quick mentions of solo shows running throughout the EIF. That great exponent of the work of Samuel Beckett, Barry McGovern is catching every nuance of Krapp’s Last Tape, whether he’s dropping banana skins, music-hall style, or puzzling over the passage of time, in Michael Colgan’s sure-footed production. Martin Creed’s Words And Music is a show that’s neither as funny as stand-up nor as slick as a gig but has a hand-knitted charm of its own, even if there is more method in the artist’s madness than he likes to let on. And then Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is a perfectly ridiculous way to end your Festival day, a riot of camp cabaret, fast-talking repartee and gorgeously sung songs.
Rhinoceros, Royal Lyceum, run ended; Meet Me at Dawn, Traverse, until 27 August; Flight, Church Hill Theatre Studio, until 27 August; Krapp’s Last Tape, Church Hill Theatre, until 27 August; Martin Creed’s Words And Music, the Studio, until 27 August; Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid, the Hub, until 27 August