15th June 2016
Finding laughter in dystopia is a hard thing to do – but big teeth and even bigger characters is a good place to start. Indian Ink’s production The Elephant Thief plays at Q Theatre until the 2nd of July - its last stop on its currently scheduled national tour.
I feel like I arrived a little late to the Indian Ink fan party – this being the first production of theirs I’ve seen. The company has received a constant stream of national and international acclaim, and deserve it yet again for this production.
The story itself is an interesting one, with multiple layers of meaning tackling issues like climate change and political unrest, or the more personal crises of grief, heritage and trust. Centred around Leela Davi (“like a police siren – LEE LAA LEEE LAAA”), brought to life by Vanessa Kumar, the play inhabits a hopefully-worst-case-scenario future in India, 2066. Leela ventures out from her isolated home town ‘to see the world’ guided by an outdated world map from the year 2016. She is soon rejoined by her elephant Balthasar, masterfully animated by Jonathan Price. The world she thought she would see no longer exists, and the world that has replaced it is far from ideal.
We meet an eclectic mix of characters: a French-Indian former queen, a catholic Irish aid-worker-turned-organ-harvester, and a stern yet emotionally weighty Indian-Russian space commander, to name a few. Most of the characters have noble goals yet twisted plans on how to achieve them – there must be a lesson in that somewhere.
When only 5 actors emerged for the final bows, not including musician Adam Ogle, I had to do a double take. The immense talents of Nisha Madhan, Patrick Carroll, Julia Croft and Jonathan Price in portraying multitudes of vivid characters alongside Vanessa Kumar made the world of The Elephant Thief feel full and alive. Furthermore, Adam Ogle accompanied occasionally by each member of the cast, wove a beautiful musical story of his own on the right hand side of the stage. I glanced over a few times at him and saw him grinning as characters responded to his vast array of sound effects. It’s seeing that kind of joy on stage that can lift a performance to the next level.
The plot wasn’t perfect with holes big enough to poke a pinky finger though, which saw it become a bit muddled and rushed at times. However, those holes were vastly overshadowed by the sensation of the play and its inherent magic.
A particularly magical moment was Patrick Carroll’s use of wet clay as a full face mask, who transformed by gradually moulding it from one creature to another. This moment went far beyond the loud humour of the rest of the play and has us witness an entrancing dance.
Theatre will always have mistakes that keep it from perfection (thank goodness). One minor hiccup that had the audience in fits of laughter was when a pair of dentures was accidentally spat out. Nisha Madhan played up the error perfectly in her role as Prime Minister of India, demanding the lighting to return to its previous state to allow her to finish her speech and remarked afterwards, “I think that went pretty well, don’t you?”, sending us all into fits of laughter.
Ultimately, the skill of the actors was strengthened further by the work of set and costume designers Sarah-Jane Blake and Stephen Bain. They transported us with simple set pieces such as several manoeuvrable plastic sheets (which doubled as instruments at times) and vividly coloured costumes with well-placed caricaturing padding. The costume and set are totally integral to this story.
Finding heart and laughter in dystopia is what really drives the success of this production. I’ve come away with a very real hope that humans (and elephants) will find a way to muddle through this messed-up world we’re creating for ourselves.
Tickets available here:
cred: John McDermott