A farcical charge of populist absurdism | Michael Fenech on Rinoċeronti

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to theatre director Michael Fenech of Bla Kondixin fame, who will this season be taking on a more intense variety of satire with Rinoċeronti, a Maltese-language version of the absurdist classic by Eugene Ionesco

Rehearsals for Teatru Malta’s production of Rinoceronti
Rehearsals for Teatru Malta’s production of Rinoceronti

What attracted you to Rinoċeronti, and what are you trying to ‘do’ with it, given your background and preferred theatrical style/s?

I find Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to be a very relevant reflection of contemporary society. A major theme in the play is the rise and attractiveness, of global populism. Ionesco is at pains to point out the insidiousness of ‘not taking sides’ and ‘all opinions are equally valid’. The play is about conformity and the need to belong. Teatru Malta’s production of the Maltese version, Rinoċeronti, plays to this strength, in that it treats themes that will immediately resonate with its audience.  

I have always liked, directed and produced theatre that is relevant and political. My production Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade for example brought out the political battle between the individual and the state. Peter Barnes’ Auschwitz was about taking responsibility for one’s actions, and whether laughter and satire can legitimately be considered as effective political weapons. The Ubu plays were about political greed.

Rinoċeronti is both relevant and political, without being preachy. On the contrary, my cast are working hard to provide an evening of entertaining theatre that is both visually and intellectually stimulating.

Michael Fenech
Michael Fenech

The play is often classified as a key example of the Theatre of the Absurd. How would you describe this theatrical genre, and why do you think Eugene Ionesco’s classic work fits so neatly within it?

In Rhinoceros, Ionesco constructs a dystopian society that falls to pieces in front of our very eyes during the duration of the play. This is a very common trope in the absurdist tradition. Beckett gives us the desert and two hopeful, helpless tramps in ‘Waiting for Godot’. The play’s hero, Berenger, is also eternally hopeful that the world can be saved, but helpless to stop the devastation around him. The theatre of the absurd feeds on the Existentialist philosophy, a conception of existence in which the world is nonsensical, living is a burden, and Man’s actions are inconsequential. Language and control matter less than we would like to believe, but at the end what matters is making personal choices.

The Rhinoceros is often read as an allegory for the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, which means that, regrettably, such an interpretation may resonate even today, with the rise of far-right governments all over the globe. Why do you think this remains the most enduring interpretation of the play, and does your take on it tap into that?

Yes, Ionesco was prescient in anticipating a return to global populism. Trump and his dangerous clichés, the Brexiteers, and populist politicians with their nostalgia for nationalism, could easily be characters in Rinoċeronti. The play’s major strength is that its themes resonate as strongly today as they did when it was originally written. This relevance is what has always attracted me to this particular work. Rinoċeronti is funny, engaging and visually rich, treating important subjects with loads of humour.

What do you make of the Maltese translation of the work by Clare Azzopardi and Albert Gatt? How do you feel the play will resonate to a Maltese audience, both linguistically and thematically?

Clare and Albert have produced an excellent literary translation which is very faithful to the original French. Theirs is the version that is being published. The language of the original, written in 1959, tends to be rather formal. My adaptation attempts to update the play to a contemporary and familiar Malta, and accordingly is replete with local and current references. During rehearsals some strategic cuts were made to keep the action flowing and to emphasise the comic element.  

The themes are what make Rinoċeronti a modern classic. Rinoċeronti can be termed an apocalyptic play, and thematically is extremely rich. A primary theme is that of personal responsibility in a world which is seen as absurd, unjust and uncaring. When all around him succumb to the attraction of societal acceptance, our hero Berenger (Daniel Azzopardi) is the only one left to fly the flag for humanity, even if his gesture may also be seen as absurd.  Ionesco’s work often treats the problem of the inadequacy, ambiguity and untrustworthiness of language. We try to communicate but hardly ever succeed. Another theme is the way the need for belonging and ‘fitting in’ may easily turn into mob rule, a clear reference to the rise of populism and mass movements.

All this may sound like Rinoċeronti is a philosophical treatise on modern preoccupations, and by implication a boring, sedentary piece of literary theatre – nothing could be further from the truth. The play is hilarious, farcical, full of action.  It is highly entertaining and very current in its references. The stylistic treatment in Rinoċeronti is, I would like to believe, very much what Ionesco would have wanted.    

What’s next for you?

My annual commitment to Bla Kondixin, a feast of satire now in its’ nineteenth year, is my next big theatrical project.  Here again relevance and current references are the name of the game. The need for satire in Malta has never been stronger, and thanks to our politicians, we do not lack material for our content.

Rinoceronti will be staged at the Planetarium of Esplora, Kalkara on September 12 to 15 at 20:30. The play is rated 12. Bookings: https://www.kultura.mt/