A strange and wonderful feature of London theatre is that you can see plays from non-English language traditions. Last year’s multilingual World Shakespeare Festival at the Globe proved there was an audience for this. And oddly enough, in the last week I’ve seen a play in French and another in Welsh, so my ears have been spoilt by theatrical richness. The Welsh voices among the audiences at the Finborough and the French chatter at the Barbican are testament enough to the heteroglot London theatre crowd, but I also suspect there were many audience members glad of the surtitles. However, what unites the productions I saw is not the fact they’re staged with accompanying translation but that they’re both part of a broad stream of European absurdist drama.
The plot of Ionesco’s Rhinocéros is simple: over the course of the play, the inhabitants of a French town turn into rhinoceroses, one by one. The only person left at the end is Bérenger, defiant yet impotent and flawed. Rhinocéros, like Camus’s La Peste and Sartre’s Les Mouches, is usually read as an allegory of fascism and a study of the psychology of collaboration, but there’s no lapse into myth-making here since Bérenger is never knowingly heroic.
If the rhinoceros represents fascism, there is no leader of the herd. Ionesco is interested less in theories of charisma than in human frailty. This is a slow disintegration of community; instead of seeing the threat for what it is, the characters argue among themselves about whether African or Asian rhinos have one or two horns, or indulge in localised power play of office politics even as one of their number, transformed into a beast, is rampaging on the floor below.
The staging, with its mobile sets, is fabulous; the rhinoceroses exist as violent sound and movement as the set and characters shake at the animals’ approach, but they’re also depicted through the characters’ reactions to crisis. When Daisy (Valérie Dashwood) capitulates at the end and joins the beasts, she says she hears singing when Bérenger (Serge Maggiani) can only hear ugly roaring. And the sound, interestingly, here, is indeed one of faint singing; does that mean that we, the audience, are being seduced too? This penultimate scene between Bérenger and Daisy ends with their being watched by crepuscular, disembodied rhino heads before Daisy makes her choice to join them.
Straightforward political allegories appeal too much to audience certainties, and never make a particularly challenging night out. So this was where this Théâtre de la Ville production, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, scored so well. There’s no escaping the political dimension, but the most disquieting moments revolved around the sense of the body not being right – my daughter was most taken with the similarity to Metamorphosis, and certainly those resonances were one of many directorial features that lifted this into total theatre and far away from agitprop. When Bérenger goes to visit Jean (Hugues Quester) the latter is on the verge of transformation, his hoarsening voice and movement conveying the physical pain and panic of metamorphosis even as he mentally embraces the instinctive power of the beast.
Saer Doliau (Doll Mender) at the Finborough is a different proposition; no big set, no big cast, and it’s in Welsh. A tightly-constructed three-hander written in 1966 by Gwenlyn Parry, the plot is simple. Ifans the doll mender (Seiriol Tomos) is alone in his workshop. All we can glean from the first ten minutes is that there is something (“Fo”, or “him” – it’s very much in North Walian dialect) in the locked cellar of which he is afraid and a boss, or the Gaffer, whom he calls on the phone to complain about his tools. A mysterious woman (Catherine Ayers) arrives; she inspects the workshop and imposes modern equipment, electricity and a young and feckless apprentice (Steffan Donnelly) on him. Over the course of the play the two take control, dismissing ‘Fo’ and the Gaffer as mere fantasy. The play ends with the violent death of Ifans, whereupon the apprentice takes over the workshop and the cycle clearly starts all over again.
Imagine Pinter in Pwllheli and you’ll get the idea. It’s a very different articulation of power from Ionesco’s, but it’s still an unsettling experience; the sense of menace is not from the crowd or from collective unreason, as in Rhinocéros, but in the fact that authority is unanchored. And that authority is at once disruptive and static, residing in the female stranger and in the two offstage presences –“Fo” in the cellar and the Gaffer on the other end of the phone.
It’s clear that Parry is having a pop at the dread certainties of post-war chapel culture, but the fact that the apprentice is left in charge at the end and embraces the belief in ‘Fo’ and the Gaffer means that there is no resolution and no change, just eternal substitution.
Saer Doliau has sold out and is coming to the end of its run on 19 February; ditto Rhinocéros, which was only on for three days at the Barbican. Bravo to the Finborough for staging a play in Welsh, and bravo to the Barbican for luring the Théâtre de la Ville company over here for three days. More, please.