Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 19 August 6, 1968
Rhino not up to scratch
I am afraid Unity's latest presentation—Nola Miller's production of Rhinoceros was disappointing. This political table (well, sort of) by Eugene lonesco, is much funnier than most (e.g. Frisch's Fire Raisers) because of its central theme: The people of a town are turning, one by one, into rhinoceroses.
The play demands clever effects and good acting. The audience's imaginative response to the play makes un-anatomieal rhinoceros heads unimportant; but unconvincing acting can only get in the way of the play, and it did at Unity.
Some of the actors in small parts were quite wooden. Others, namely Sandra Whitehead, Virginia Webb, Valerie Alfred, Peter Sim, Trevor King and Ron Lamont were varyingly adequate, and often most enjoyable to watch. One incredible performance came from the Old Gentleman, played anonymously; he had a deformed voice and overacted hugely, yet was fascinating to watch, absurdly entertaining and interesting.
As Ionesco shifts the centre of attention from the rhinoceroses to people's reactions to them, the play becomes arguments and dialogues. Thus the last half depends almost entirely on interplay between two people. In the last scene, during the long argument by Dudart (everyone called him doo-dah) and Berenger, I felt that neither fully grasped the rat aning of what they were saying, and so couldn't make the scene interesting.
Jeffrey Rowe as Berenger, the hero, was on stage throughout the play, and obviously working hard against blankness from some cast members. Yet he wasn't believably Berenger, as opposed to a pleasant young man saying the lines of a play. His movement lacked discipline and he tended to fussy repetitive gestures. Verbally he needed restraint and variety. His final speech hadn't any power because he had been playing so long at a high level. Mr Howe has quite a potential, but could be tempted towards protective mannerisms of speech and movement.
Janis Fraser's Daisy was pleasant, but to me showed no deep feeling Douglas Dairy as Jean has a stage presence no-one else had. His belligerent petulancy, as he transformed into a rhinoceros, was strangely convincing. I felt his metamorphosis was betrayed by lack of imagination in make-up, and failure of the producer to follow Ionesco's stage directions.
The set was imaginatively conceived and used, but had been so flimsily constructed, with doors frequently sticking, that the actors were hampered and distressed. The scene changes were long and not terribly exciting to watch, and the main acting area could have been lit better with more lamps. But the sound effects were impressive, and very much what I would imagine rhinoceroses to sound like.
There were some very funny moments in the play, and some parts were quite pleasant to watch. But what has been called Ionesco's weakness in construction needed a strong cast to master. And this cast wasn't endow with enough experience or ability, I am sorry to say.
Sideways through the sewers
To describe a drama production with faint praise as being adequate is to concede it three achievements: of having sustained a dramatic effect for the duration; of having presented a coherent ensemble of expression through sight and sound; and of having exuded a certain minimal warmth that seems unique to the live theatre. Anything more is icing sugar which, though ever-hopeful, we have learned not to expect from amateur theatre with its limited human and material resources.
The Wellington Teachers' College Drama Club's recent presentation of Jean Giraudouxs The Madwoman of Chaillot was adequate. Giraudoux has given us a fairy story in which the humble people of Paris (the street artists, the flower sellers, the sewer workers) led by the eccentric but "hip" Madwoman of Chaillot, overthrow the exploiters (the unscrupulous financiers) who propose to turn Paris into a wasteland in their search for oil in its subsoil. The Madwoman, with the assistance of her friends and the poor folk of the city, succeeds (by feigning the discovery of oil in the labyrinth of sewers under Paris) in causing the legions of the profiteers to disappear with their greed into the ground.
John Batstone's production was, at times, imaginative. The two sets he required of his designers were effective. If Mr Batstone was handicapped by a certain amount of weak acting, he was competently served by Barbara Hodge (the Madwoman) and by Alistair Douglas (the Ragpicker). The latter's performance as Devil's advocate in the mock trial of the exploiters was full of the irony intended by the author Jennie Sherwood-Butt, Margaret Turner and Joanne Sullivan (the Madwoman's equally mad friends) struggled more or less successfully with the problem of portraying women twice their age.
It is significant that French theatre has been in vogue in English speaking countries since the war. This is attributable both to the relative flabbiness of home-grown English drama until the revival in the late fifties and, of course, to the vigour of thought and construction of the French writers, notably Camus, Sartre and Anouilh, and their willingness to come to grips with modern sociopolitical problems. This "political' approach to the theatre finds its most exponent in Bertolt Brecht, who considered that drama should consist of "debate" in which the spectator's role is to consider the problems presented by the writer and be stimulated to decisive social action.
In Brecht's work it is taken for granted that the solutions to these problems are to be found in communism. Jean giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot has too lyrical a strain to allow of comparison with the work of the "hard core literary politicians, nevertheless, in so far as it denounces the tactics of finance capitalism and its tendency to make decisions of far-reaching social importance, riding rough-shod over all considerations other than its own financial gain, the play can (and should) be seen as political.
Having underlined the problems, he suggests no solution other than the somewhat draconian measures taken by his Madwoman. Some, however, will continue to believe and to assert that justice between men will not be achieved until technology is owned by the people and applied on their behalf, for their benefit and in pursuance of policies that have as little to do with money as possible.