Review of ELEPHANT’S GRAVEYARD by George Brant | directed by David Eaton
review by Simon Jenner
Our Town. Gone mad. It’s back. For those who missed last year’s NVT rehearsed reading Elephant’s Graveyard returns with the same director and nine of the 13-strong cast in a full production.
George Brant’s dystopic vision – from 2010 – of two days in September 1916 in Erwin, Tennessee, really happened. Spark’s Circus arrived, and an elephant was arraigned for murder. If you can call it either of those two things. ‘There was a town. A man with red hair. An elephant’ as the Ringmaster Martin Ryan informs us with a crackling nasal snarl. ‘It’s all about the investment.’ People cheering on their feet are pipe dreams, be careful what you wish for. He relates the insurance claim for a Billy Smart elephant; and how it was then posthumously used again: stuffed till it fell apart into a ghost of itself. But this elephant’s called Mary. And through a chorus of thirteen characters, we hear what happened.
You won’t hear it from the red-haired man. A newcomer, he demands the right to lead with Mary, largest of the elephants, when the Trainer Shorty (Alice Ringholm Heder) would prove far more suitable. Mary spies a thrown-out watermelon the Hungry Townsperson (Alex Williams) relates was there because the poor trash men finally went on strike. The red-haired man’s enraged. The effect’s disastrous. Talk about taking an elephant to crack a nut . . . without the gun.
As for an elephant in the room, director David Eaton has managed far more in the flexible NVT Studio space, with Richard de Costobadie on production with Bryony Weaver managing. Vanessa Barrett, Mark Green and cast member Naomi Horsfall’s costume design has produced spectacularly seedy results – from the battered Mad Hatter’s shorter top hat and hunting scarlet (not pink) of the Ringmaster, to the tatterdemalion rags of the poor, this is a full costume performance; striking, spare, original and strange. The tangerine overalls of the Steam Shovel Operator (de Costobadie) look almost period, Claudia Hindle’s Ballet Girl (all sensually wrought in Mary’s trunk that never loses its erection), Ben Pritchard’s Clown: the overall scarlet/black detail of costumery is carried to Adam Kinkaid’s scarlet/black scene painting with Julie Monkton’s makeup prominent – not just on the clown. Keith Dawson’s
light design is unfussy, ideal for a straight choric production.
Stacy Frost’s light and sound operation comes to the fore in balancing the live musicians: Becca Huggett the evocative singer, guitarist Adam Kinkaid and Neil Rocks on drums; their pieces particularly the finale, are evocative eldritch additions to the story. Period songs, new twist. Accents for the most part are starkly resonant, and rasp as authentically as my knowledge of place goes.
The townspeople demand a trial too. The cast stand facing a corner of the Studio. They rarely move – the Trainer does most of that, running off and on stage. Each character speaks out and virtually never to each other save by implication and commentary (the Tour Manager on the Ringmaster).
The play is then a chorus-line of disapprovals with slight demurrals – Heder’s empathic and furious Trainer, and Joseph Cooper’s Preacher. Heder, repeating her debut performance has much to do and is excellent. Ryan’s of course the actor cracking the whip and his own voice: it’s a tour-de-force. Diana Banham’s Tour Manager offers a realistic hard-boiled watering down of the Ringmaster’s almost maniacal obsessions with giving the public what they want. But she’s a shrewder judge he concedes, of the most base instincts: and how to survive them.
Pritchard’s Clown who has so much digging to do after his initial ball-spilling, invests his role with predictable humanity; it’s what clowns are meant to crumble to.
Mark Green’s excellent Engineer litanising the railroad’s infinite possibility, metallically snarls his disdain for anything un-mechanical. Being keeper of times, he can stop time. His mechanical hymns are evocatively horrid. You fear for his throat. Jamie S Marchant’s Strongman looks like Rooster Byron and sounds Hungarian: his pique at being upstaged, his simmering, contained rage clicks as he snaps his fingers back and forth. Paddy O’Keeffe enjoys a sojourn from Shavian socialism for which he’s known, as the xenophobic Marshal (indeed Trumpety Trump). That’s in contrast to the Young Townsperson Naomi Horsfall’s more sympathetic lament – she makes an appealing curveball of sensibility.
Cooper’s Preacher is a simple part but here invested with something like aching compassion, and a moving last appearance commenting on the other elephants’ actions. He invests more roar than his predecessor in the part last year, and overall there’s more propensity to vocal explosion.
Williams, too, as the Hungry Townsperson manages another voice of dissent. And he adds a chillingly eloquent coda. With all this fuss of hanging, townsfolk forget that black people were being hanged here.
Hindle’s Ballet Girl is a vulnerable mix of sexual excitement, faux-innocence (‘any way you want me’) and dire need. What will she do if there aren’t elephants? She’d rated them above diamonds as a girl’s best friend. At the end, she wonders about diamonds.
One stand-out is another more layered character, Cata Lindegaard’s Muddy Townsperson. Someone submerged in want and loss shows at first despair, then horror, then anger then horror again. Her explosive outbursts really add a dimension and show this production’s
sheer heft, in only her second acting role. Initially it seemed Lindegaard might start on too voluble a grief, but she fines this down and shows pace, variety and something extra in her final moments; truly moving. De Costobadie’s Steam Shovel Operator exudes at first a bored desire to see spectacle. By the end he’s a witness to spectacular collective lunacy, exuding a sad stoicism, a determination to see it all through.
When premiered in 2010 this work received baffled notices, indeed disdain. Then it won awards. Now it seems frighteningly prescient and its anniversary, 2016 seems to have brought the circus to the Whitehouse – as some cast members subtly signalled in hand movements. Beyond that moment though, this is still a cautionary tale. NVT should be proud. It’s in their best American vein.
First published June 19, 2019 - by Simon Jenner at fringereview.co.uk