Elephant – The DOOR, Birmingham REP

Writer: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti

Director: Lucy Morrison

Reviewer: John Kennedy

The PR for this première performance quotes from the text promising a family of ‘Real flesh and blood, not out of a catalogue or an Oxo advert.’ As if a further contextual reality-check is needed, one of the family comments that it’s ok to be gay because ‘they’ve got one in Eastenders.’ The Royal Court’s Associate Director, Lucy Morrison, elects for a thrust-stage dynamic: an overhead, rectangular canopy lit in subdued orange/pinkness matches the similar coloured carpet. It might be a womb or more so an un-healing wound – either is equally unsettling. Within, suppurating secrets as yet dormant wait their time. A bottle or two, a plastic bag and some lager cans are all that furnish this compact space. The characters seem compressed within a surreal boxing arena as though invisible ropes both bind and divide them. The proverb of giving people enough rope trembles in the subtext.

Vira (Sukh Ojla) is the titular ‘Elephant’ in the room. She brings a suppressed childhood backstory nightmare with her. ‘Elephant’ was a secret infant nick-name given by her older sister. Writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti suggests other metaphorical elephants: ones that never forget, white ones of distracting irrelevance, ones doomed to disinter buried secrets from their ancestral graveyards. One other potential unaddressed elephant in the room is that of equivocal cultural assimilation. Whilst there is evident pride and continuity in their Indian heritage, Barry, Amy and Bill have given or assumed anglicised forenames. It soon becomes evident however that Barry’s attendance at the Gurdwara is more one of penitent sufferance that spiritual enrichment.

Vira, long-estranged younger sister of Deesh (Yasmin Wilde) who is married to Barry (Ezra Faroque Khan), has been invited to their daughter, Amy’s, leaving party (Raagni Sharma). She is escaping to New York. In her limited Media-Studies intern dreams – she like so like talks like that in that ubiquitous non-interrogative statement youth patois. Vira has issues; Vira has history. She arrives looking like a PoundLand fashion disaster and immediately cracks open a can of lager. A bag-lady Cassandra, the spectre at the feast, an avenging angel pursuing a toxic agenda that Barry must inevitably account for. He so wants to be a good man, a model to his wife and children, but Vira’s set on ensuring the sins of the father rest on the son, Bill (Farshid Rokey), the wife and the daughter.
What might have been atonement soon descends into attrition. Confrontations and confessional revelations expose Barry for having sexually abused Vira from the age of twelve. She accuses Deesh of ignoring her cries for help. Is her loyalty to Barry a further admission of this complicit violation? Are both Amy and Bill guilty by association in siding with their father? Are they tainted by their parents’ guilt of commission and omission like a soap-opera version of an Oresteian tragedy? Were their grandparents part of this also?
Whilst a production still in gestation where the cast needs to project further confidence in exploring their thoroughly uncomfortable rôles, there is nevertheless conviction in the inchoate nightmare that has been visited upon them. Whether Vira finds release or is consumed by her revenge remains unresolved. Can what remains of their shattered, symbolic Hindu belief, the elephant’s head on a human body, as The Remover of Obstacles, bring any salvation? The real tragedy is that this play’s context shows no sign of ever dating. An experimental, explorative and provocative production to be applauded and supported.

Runs until 3 March 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed

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