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Rhino review: Ionesco reimagined in the virtual worlds of gaming and automaton-like avatars

Belfast International Arts Festival 2023: Patrick J O’Reilly presents cold, sci-fi-inspired dramatic concept


Lyric Theatre, Belfast

There is never a good time for a revival of Rhinoceros, Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist dramatic allegory for the troubled times out of which postwar Europe was emerging. But, sad to say, there is always an appropriate time.

The play was last staged in Belfast by Kabosh Theatre Company in March 2003, when its opening coincided with the onset of the American assault on Baghdad. It was a deeply affecting experience to turn away from television coverage of bombs raining down on mosques and residential streets and crowd into a claustrophobic upstairs room in the Old Museum Arts Centre to witness a surreal interpretation of the decimation of a fictional town by throng of rampaging rhinos.

Years pass and the analogies rumble on, through the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in Syria, the war in Afghanistan, the conflict in Darfur and, in the past two years alone, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the unimaginable barbarity unleashing in Israel and Gaza.

Ionesco focused his attention on the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, examining the mass mentality of its true believers alongside the internal struggles of those brave, independent thinkers who chose to remain apart. Through the ugly, mindless figure of a lumbering rhinoceros, he opened up an even wider exploration of the downfall of humanity.


In his newly adapted, expressionistic version for Tinderbox, Patrick J O’Reilly presents a cold, sci-fi-inspired dramatic concept, stripped of humanity and plunged into the virtual worlds of gaming and automaton-like avatars. Having trained at Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School, in Paris, his directorial outlook is permanently tinged with European cultural references and sensibilities, here brought thrillingly to life by a dedicated cast and production team.

The setting is a video game that unfolds in a small town in rural France. Its residents are a weird collection of cleverly judged, virtual character types: the posturing Jean (Shaun Blaney), the butcher’s downtrodden wife, Madame Boeuf (Nicky Harley), the all-knowing logician (Daniel Cunningham) and the local pretty ladies Daisy and Dudard (Vicky Allen and Mary McGurk). Tracey Lindsay’s black-void performance space is strung with tiny, neon-green lights, surrounded by projected computer-screen imagery and movable gauze screens.

Twitching and jerking in stark monochrome costumes, their whitened doll faces devoid of expression, these unreal beings register as innocent and sinister. Only Berenger, the drunken, clown-like cafe owner (Richard Clements), is blessed, or cursed, with feelings, a soul and a conscience. Through him the writer exposes his own response to the terrifying new world order gathering pace around him.

As the game proceeds through the levels, tension rises in tandem with the increasing number of creatures running amok through the town. Berenger can only watch, powerless, as, one by one, serenaded by Garth McConaghie’s subversively cheery soundscape, his fellow citizens retreat behind the screens, shed all artifice of their former identities and join the herd of beasts prowling the streets. Refusing to join the charge, the hapless Berenger remains, isolated, intoxicated and frightened, the last man standing.

Runs at the Lyric Theatre, as part of Belfast International Arts Festival, until Saturday, October 28th

Jane Coyle

Jane Coyle is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture