Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros, a surreal commentary on society, extremism and hatred, has been translated into Welsh by Carnegie winner Manon Steffan Ros, and thanks to Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru is touring up and down the country this autumn. Manon, and director Steffan Donnelly, answered some questions about it.
Explain what this play is about, for someone who has never heard of it.
Steffan Donnelly (director): Rhinoceros is about the inhabitants of a village transforming into rhinoceroses and one unlikely hero’s quest to fight against this mass metamorphosis. It’s real world, but something insane happens and nothing feels very real anymore. It starts off as an absurd comedy and ends with some searching questions about conformity and the relationship between individuals and society. Originally written as a metaphor about fascism and mob mentality, it’s a wildly original story with many layers of meaning – think George Orwell meets Wes Anderson, and a herd of rhinos…
Manon Steffan Ros (writer): The people of a certain town start turning into rhinoceroses – but that’s just the outer layer of the play. As Ionesco does so well in his plays, once you tap into the layers of meaning and the social commentary, the play and its characters are transformed.
The play was originally written in 1959. Why revive it now?
Manon: It feels so apt for this time. The themes seem particularly modern, even down to events like the pandemic – it all fits so well. Working on it has made me view 1959 like it happened a moment ago – I suppose that human nature and our strengths and failings don’t really change that much with the generations.
Steffan: On the way out of a pandemic with a fragmented society, the climate crisis, Westminster’s policies, and even the USA’s Republican primaries as a backdrop to our tour, this story will resonate with audiences.
What do you think is changed or added by adapting the play into Welsh?
Manon: Again, it seems to fit so well into the Welsh cultural landscape, considering it was originally written in French. There was an element which adapted really well into a north v south theme. Some details have changed in the adaptation, but nothing that changes the mood or the atmosphere at all. The play has been edited to make the running time shorter; I think the main thing that has changed between 1959 and 2023 is that audiences are no longer up for a play as long as the original!
Steffan: I think it’s funnier in Welsh; the jokes hit harder than in the English translation and the comedy feels more authentic. Maybe there’s something about a minoritised-language culture that can access absurdity more easily? It’s also suddenly very relatable – these characters exist in the village I grew up in! There’s a long tradition of absurdist theatre in Wales: Saunders Lewis’ Yn Y Trên, Kate Roberts’ radio play set in a kind of purgatory, Gwenlyn Parry’s Saer Doliau and other plays.
What is appealing or unique about ‘absurdist’ theatre?
Manon: It’s courageous by its nature – not straightforward or easily digestible, and I think that when there are elements of the audience having to work within their own minds to find the layers of meaning, it becomes so rich. Your experience as an audience member is not only what you see on stage, but also what your own viewpoint brings.
Steffan: A lot of absurdist drama came out of the era of World War II, with playwrights responding to social, political and economic changes. Ionesco’s work alone includes a growing corpse (Amadae), a married couple hosting a party for invisible guests (The Chairs), and a 400 year-old king who’s in denial about death (Exit The King, performed by Rhys Ifans in 2018).
Absurdism isn’t all existential doom and gloom. The term ‘absurdism’ originally means ‘out of harmony’ – I think this is a perfect description of the genre. It’s also how a lot of us feel about our world now: overwhelming, like an orchestra wilfully not listening to each other.
What kind of ideas and questions do you want to leave in audiences’ minds?
Manon: Some will leave the theatre thinking that they just watched a play about rhinoceroses, but I believe that the vast majority will have gained an insight into our societal structures, relationship patterns, the way we live our lives. Yes, the play is about rhinoceroses, but in a way it’s got nothing at all to do with them!
Steffan: You can see the rhinos as representing the rise of fascism, territorialism, our ecological emergency, fake news, capitalism, a force against the Welsh language’s survival; our production won’t force you to choose. It can be all of these things and more. It might also make people think about how equipped we are to respond and communicate when major societal shifts happen, whether that’s the Brexit vote or a rhino appearing in your village.
The promotional imagery of a man with a rhinoceros head is very arresting…
Steffan: Thank you! I’m glad we made something intriguing and off-kilter. It’s going to be a very visual piece with a big ensemble cast. The set and lighting designers are creating a world of shadows, chaos and quirkiness. Just as important as the visual is the aural – Dyfan Jones is busy creating a threateningly zoological soundscape for us!
Rhinoseros opens at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff from Tue 24-Fri 27 Oct before touring to Pontio, Bangor (Wed 1 + Thurs 2 Nov); Aberystwyth Arts Centre (Sat 4); Neuadd Dwyfor, Pwllheli (Tue 7); Theatr Hafren, Newtown (Thurs 9); Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan (Tue 14), Galeri, Caernarfon (Thurs 16) and Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea (Sat 18 Nov).