Jetpack Theatre Collective specialise in intimate performances that blur the line between audience and cast. For their production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, each scene change reshuffles the audience too, moving them between an orthodox auditorium-style seating pattern either side of the space to chairs and tables on the stage. The show is never more compelling than when you’re in it. Nestled between competing conversations (and at risk of being trampled) you become part of the blend of voices that lend the work its cacophonic quality. The unfortunate trade off is that some lines are lost on those seated in the audience, where action to the extremity of the space is accessible only to those seated on that side.
Alexander Richmond as the protagonist, Berenger; Robert Boddington, his friend-cum-rhinoceros; and Maddie Parker, his intellectual sparring partner, all stand out for their capacity to find a human, empathisable quality within Ionesco’s sometimes-overt parable.
The design is frankly exemplary, partially because it’s so simple. The space is accoutered in brown paper, the rhinoceros masks are a geometric print of sharp cardboard, and the outfits are striking, colorful, and period appropriate. Important stage pieces are minimalist and, where possible, constructed from the same cardboard. There is a top down visual unity to the production that lends it a professionalism well beyond its budget. Similarly, the play’s sound is never more effective than when it’s generated acapella by actors in the space. Three to five bodies combine in a scrum to make a Rhinoceros, and that many limbs flailing against the wooden floor fills the room with a threatening din. It far outmatches the sound system in the Kings Cross Theatre—which has a hollow quality, and hurts many of the recorded FX in the third act.
The main issue with the play sits with the script. On one hand, Ionesco’s metaphor for the spread of fascist ideology in the early 20th century has clear resonances in our Trump-Hanson-Farage days, but the metaphor sometimes borders quaint and ham-fisted. The third and final act is let down by a stream of abrupt character developments, where love seems to emerge from nowhere. Compare the far more effective conclusion to the second act, which finds a strong moment of connection between Richmond and Boddington in an otherwise absurd state of affairs, which is enabled by the natural development of their relationship through earlier scenes. To follow this moment with a pair of (in my mind) weaker ones—while perhaps necessary to the plot—never really connects with the audience in the same way. There might have been ways to cut, nip, and tuck these final moments to make them more palatable and, considering the dearth of interaction in the third act save for the climax, this might have made it feel less disparate to the rest of the play as a whole.
That said, the play’s conclusion returns to the same striking interaction that marks the production’s most successful beats. For the strength of those moments and for the strength of the show’s construction, it is a worthy production for Ionesco fans.