‘Elephant’ is a stunningly inventive show and the only disappointment is that its run at Greenwich Theatre is limited to five days. It’s difficult to come up with a simple word that sums up its style as it combines dance, theatre, puppetry, music, Commedia dell’Arte and ritual in a joyous telling of the life story of an African chief This collage of styles and images is amazingly coherent, and thoroughly engrossing.
The production is a hybrid of South African and European influences. This can be most clearly seen in the contrasting performances by Pady O’Connor, as the Devil, and by Zamuxolo Mgoduka as the Chief’s Brother. O’Connor has the physicality of the Devil himself, hissing and sliding his way around the words and the stage, incorporating into his performance a very European style of physical expression. The Devil has all the best lines and he brilliantly uses his hat to emphasise his words and create an extension of his own slippery personality. Contrasting with this, Mgoduka’s movement and speech is rooted in South African dance and language, he often slips into a regional language. The powerfully physical nature of his performance, his feet constantly pounding the earth, emphasise his connection with the land and his ancestors.
The show is supported by exciting music played by a single musician, occasionally enhanced by the cast when the score demands it. An array of percussion instruments provide haunting echoes of the African plains during the darkest and most moving scenes, whilst drumming and singing drive forward the dance sequences with huge energy and enthusiasm.
When the elephants (and it’s no secret that they appear in the play) lumber onto stage the audience has its breath taken away. ‘War Horse’ hasn’t got a monopoly on stunning puppets from South Africa, and for sheer impact the elephants knock Joey the horse and his friends into a cocked hat. They are impressive not only because of their extraordinary visual presence and beautiful movement – the mother elephant taking the baby one under her trunk for protection is a highly emotionally charged moment – but also because they are lit so wonderfully. Sometimes they appear as in a dream behind a gauze, and at other times in shafts of light that mimic the shade of trees in the African bush.
Whilst the play has a strong and compelling narrative, containing many comic and emotional moments, there is a very forceful message. The colonisation of Africa, as visualized by two actors in ragged uniforms selling guns to the tribesmen, is at the root of the modern disjoint conflict between man and nature. It is, ultimately, the reason why at the start of the story our narrator, Chief Zanenvula, cannot take his rightful place in heaven.
This show has been created with real love, and every member of the ensemble contributes to a highly successful evening. Even the programme, rich with photographs and text, is the best value I’ve come across for some time. If it were the West End it would be a souvenir edition sold for £10; here it’s a modest £3. The collaboration between South Africa’s Market Theatre and Newcastle’s Dodgy Clutch Theatre Company is enormously rewarding. The show has, in different guises, been on tour for around ten years and if you haven’t had a chance to see it at Greenwich my guess is that it will be at another venue near us soon.