BIAF 23: Rhino
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Patrick J O’Reilly's Rhino, a modern-day adaptation of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, is a truly astounding work – a literate, figurative and physical re-creation of consistently inventive and conscientious audacity. In taking Ionesco's avant-garde piece and placing it within the boundaries of a computer game, of all things, O'Reilly and his excellent cast invite the audience at the Lyric Theatre's Naughton Studio to consider the effects of conformist mob mentality, and attempts to counter it, through a viewpoint as comforting as it is draining and as familiar as it is uneasy – and the end result is unusual, unsettling, moving and darkly funny at once, a richly rewarding experience.

The cauldron of Rhino – and that's what it is, because, appropriately for Hallowe'en, you've got toil and trouble doubled up multiple times over – is a brew of herd instinct and creepy diversions which amount to an enormous level of social hysteria. Almost the entire ensemble come across as uncanny and mechanical in what looks like a world of Super Mario, Tetris, online chatrooms and computer chips all together. And how well it works. For what is Tetris alone but an endless succession of different individual shapes ordered into lines and combined into collectives by game controllers? Lines and collectives that take mere seconds to vanish as the score – the emblem of the desire to be relentlessly safe and satisfied – rises? And rises again, as the controllers create more orderly lines and combined collectives? It's as if there's nowhere to go once the lines and boxes have been drawn, and that's when it dawns on us that boredom is just as possible as zaniness in this "game of life". A game where, one character puts it, there is no difference between being awake and being asleep. There are no fine lines here – there are no lines at all, apart from those being drawn to keep the characters adherent.

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Production Photo: Lost Lens Caps

The aspiring exception to these rules is the "everyman", Berenger, given a winningly complex portrayal by Richard Clements. Amongst the motley crew of seemingly different but increasingly similar characters played brilliantly by Nicky Harley, Danny Cunningham, Mary McGurk, Vicky Allen and Shaun Blaney, Berenger's journey, unkindly impacted by his dependence on alcohol, is centred around an increasing eagerness to understand where he fits in the arrestingly developed world of screens, wires and flashing lights that we see in front of us – and the significance of the titular rhino, or rhinoceroses, whose intervention has induced levels of panic by the time we reach Level Two of this game. While the rhinoceroses could be initially perceived as an obstacle to be overcome with the right defences – not unlike a typical end-of-level guardian – their overall and ultimate effect is far stronger and more serious, a potential "joining" which equates to the threat of assimilation and loss of identity. Therefore, the challenge for Berenger to maintain his beliefs, while maddeningly pondering how true or valuable those beliefs ring within his environment, is enormous – and Clements is up to the task of matching his character's demands in every physical and emotional sense.

Of particular note are the overlapping conversations near the play which seem to diverge from each other but somehow make sense in tandem, Berenger's richly philosophical interaction with Mary McGurk's Dudard, and his confrontation of what love really is when faced with Vicky Allen’s Daisy. Daisy, Daisy... the same name as HAL's final song in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps also the final hope for Berenger to stand tall in the face of ever-increasing pressure. It's hope for the audience too, hope that everything we viewers have drawn from the gruelling and weirdly amusing encounters taking place in Rhino will inspire conversations and actions that will take the play's legacy far beyond its running length – a fitting and deserved legacy for a poignant and fulfilling masterpiece.

Simon Fallaha

Rhino runs at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday October 28 as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival 2023. For more information, and tickets, click here.