Writer: George Brant
Director: Colin Blumenau
In September 1914, the American lust for violence, spectacle and supposed ‘justice’ took, perhaps, its most peculiar turn in a quest to satisfy the blind vengeance of a small town in Tennessee. The lynching of Mary, a circus Elephant, is the basis of George Brant’s award-winning production which recounts the events where a fame-hungry circus clashes with the residents of the town. Adapted for the digital medium, The Production Exchange have filmed a version of Elephant’s Graveyard for home audiences.
In a semi-biography, the story of Mary the Elephant is told from the mouths of the circus folk who worked with her, and the residents of the town in which she was hanged. From ringmasters and clowns to town marshals and preachers, Elephant’s Graveyard blends folklore and history as it attempts to use the tragic case of America’s gluttonous desire for spectacle as a means to elevate an terrific story into fresh dimensions of poignancy, humour and commentary.
Colin Blumenau’s direction conducts the production in an almost interview fashion, with rare interactions between characters. Largely it follows the traditional structure of the lead-up to the event, the lynching itself and then aftermath, but occasionally folklore bleeds into the supernatural as characters feel less restricted, and it is here where the contemporary commentary plays a part.
The control of the cast is diverse, some characters feeling a touch more accessible than others. Collectively, they work as a unique bundle of characters, but some take their parts to new levels (which is not always welcomed). The likes of Caroline Moroney and Phil Sealey have it within themselves to keep their emotions understated, even when displaying volatile sentiments, but other cast members can’t carry themselves as authentically. Sam Page’s Ringmaster is at home in the tent but feels cartoonish for a production which has one foot in reality and the same is true for Dannie Harris’ ballet girl.
And this isn’t to say the circus performers draw a less grounded sense of representation, as Esmee Cook’s Clown (perhaps the one character given a free pass for heightened performance), finds a balance in excess and when to steady the tone. A difficult script to adapt, particularly with limited movement in the digital field, Elephant’s Graveyard is a tad disjointed and stilted.
Rightly, Brant ties the obsessive vulgarity in American spectacle with that of racial tension of the period (though not much has changed). For the most part, Nickolia King N’ da’s role as the Hungry Townsperson is almost an aethereal narration presence, a separate voice amidst the sea of rabid mouths clambering to watch the lynching of Mary. In the climax, his place in the story takes a contemporary note, a horrific reminder of the black men and women hanged in the States and the chances are most people remember the Elephant’s life with fonder respect. It’s a humbling moment and utilises a stronger, fluid sense of writing otherwise vacant in the production.
In general Brant’s writing has an issue with balance, as the play combines historical fact with a sprinkling of legend. The decision to keep one footing in reality, another in folklore, makes perfect sense in dissecting the West’s obsession with spectacle, particularly violent. It holds a looking glass to the present, especially as America seems to be stemming itself deeper into a violent streak we had long hoped it moved from.
Reviewed on 17 September 2020