The premise of Elephants Graveyard, given it’s UK premier at the Warwick Arts Centre last week, would seem a difficult one to pull off; a play set in a nowhere town in Tennessee, in which the townspeople hang a circus elephant after she deliberately kills her trainer…. all off stage.
In George Brants play, narrated by a cross-section of the population of Erwin – the impoverished town with so little aspiration that it forgot its own name- all the dramatic events happen off stage. The play is delivered in a series of interlocking monologues which form a verbal jigsaw puzzle – the cast collaborate beautifully on the big ensemble scenes, creating some spell-binding moments which foreground the collective nature of memory as each character narrates, corrects and invents their own version of the events. Lying on the softer side of Brechtian theatre, the oral-history storytelling technique is superbly effective; given that all we are looking at is a bare and dusty stage strewn with wooden crates, they conjure all the magic of the circus parade and sickening chill of popular blood-lust and bring it vividly to life. Each character, ranging from a disaffected priest to a unsettlingly predatory railway engineer, uses the dramatic events of a circus-parade-gone-bad as a canvas on which to project their personal desires and fears on to. The hanging of Mary the Elephant with a railway crane – a lynching with obvious resonance in the American south – becomes more than an act of popular violence, as each character takes their own catharsis from the tragedy.
Some of these themes, however, hang uneasily together; there are some rich ideas to play with, but the seams show as the different stories are patched together. The arrival of the railways, snaking across America and dragging a fierce modernity behind it, appears with brilliant menace here as the engineer who will orchestrate the hanging slinks across the stage, ruthless industrialism set up against the rural poverty of the town and their almost superstitious reverence for the magic of the circus. Overlaying this is the race angle, as the town bays for a ritualistic blood-letting in the hanging of Mary which was more usually slaked on black Americans than elephants. At times this is flagged up for us a little clumsily, rather than being left as a powerful and obvious allegory. The play, slickly underlined by a brilliant live performance by just-visible musicians who add atmosphere without intruding, is also badly rounded off by an odd version of ‘strange fruit’ which seems to cut in the wrong place, and pushes the race parallel a little too aggressively. The closing scene, in which each character is spot-lit in a summing-up speech, is frankly boring after the heart-stopping ensemble scenes which fill the majority of the play, a flaw which they are pushed into by the script rather than the direction. There are some stand-out performances, notably Jay Saighal as the devoted Elephant Trainer who cares for Mary up till the last, and Kwake Mills-Bampoe, who gives one of the best of the extroverted and energetic performances which characterise this production. Even the southern accents the cast boast, which could all-too-easily slip into farce, are carried off well, although there are occasional slips into a distracting Irish twang. The minimal set with its backdrop of tangled rope that appear as both web, cage and sculpture is complimented by the understated costumes which separate the drab dust-coloured townspeople from the child-like glitz of the itinerant circus performers, as the two groups circle, surround and appraise each other in a slow and suspicious dance on-stage. Thought provoking and powerful, if a little patchy in places, Elephants Graveyard is an intelligent and confident mix of social commentary, psychological portraiture, and mesmeric performance.