The Elephant Vanishes / Two Step / Thom Pain (based on nothing)  / Bombshells
Various venues
August/September, 2004

Another terse Prompt Corner, as the aftermath of Edinburgh continues.  For the first half of the period covered by this issue, I was either covering the bitter end of the Fringe or yo-yoing back up there from London to catch the final theatre offering at the International Festival.  Of the five London shows I caught in the remaining six nights, one – the NYT Master And Margarita – was covered in the last issue, and two more are reviewed by me in the body of this one. Which leaves me here to ponder on a petering-out pachyderm and a paso doble for past... no, let’s leave the alliteration there.

Outside the box

The Elephant Vanishes is, of course, a work of visual and imaginative wonder, and I count myself lucky to have seen it.  It’s almost the stage equivalent of the multi-layered video imaging techniques Peter Greenaway played with in his film Prospero’s Books, only more resonant and less indulgent (closer, perhaps, to Greenaway’s earlier, truncated collaboration with artist and poet Tom Phillips on A TV Dante).  Simon McBurney thinks outside the theatrical box in the most astounding, literal ways, and the set and lighting design respectively of Michael Levine and Paul Anderson help him realise his ideas with a fluid grace.

You can hear the “But...” coming, can’t you?  It’s related to those notions of the exotic that I waffled about several issues ago.  It struck me that both the mode of staging, and the content of the Haruki Murakami short stories selected by McBurney for adaptation, fall into line with a particular kind of reductive image of Japan and the Japanese: easy exotica.  In this case, it’s a contemporary strain of exotica, that of a nation of hi-tech workaholics whose lives are out of balance as a result of losing touch with older cultural values.  The latter point, indeed, is broadly what the three stories have in common: a sense of imbalance, of disconnection, of not-rightness.  Yet nowhere do the strands of drama here suggest precisely what it is that’s missing, and nowhere does the staging leave a space for it.  This is a dazzlingly complex show, but it’s complex like the innards of an electrical gizmo, not like the person’s life that happens to include the use of that gizmo.  If you see what I mean.


Similar gaps and unanswered questions hamper Rhashan Stone’s Two Step.  Stone, already known as a gifted actor, reveals himself in his first play to have a fine ear for dialogue, a less brilliant but still solid sense of character, but an as yet patchy grasp of how to turn these to the service of the themes he wants to investigate.  That’s fine: far rather that way round for a playwright than the other, being well versed in the deep stuff and cack-handed at dramatic interest.  [Editor clears his throat with a cough which could be imagined to sound like “Carl Djerassi!”]  It’s Stone’s misfortune that, coming at the end of the summer’s slack period and being staged at a venue as cachet-ful as the Almeida as part of an important strand such as Push 04, his play has been subjected to more intense scrutiny than it might otherwise have received.

Charles Spencer’s Telegraph review is a fascinating instance.  Using the “as a [whatever]...” line of argument is normally to be deplored; however, Charlie’s past and present not only give him a particular qualification to consider the portrayal here of the twelve-step programme and one of its acolytes, but it would have been unreasonable of him not to bring his particular knowledge of the subject to bear on this play.  But this aspect isn’t everything, and indeed Charles acknowledges as much.  For a review just as critical from a “secular” standpoint, compare Nicholas de Jongh’s: he makes the dual points that Josette Bushell-Mingo’s more than able direction and Bernadette Roberts’ design may over-indulge the symbolic vein in Stone’s writing, and that (as I’d put it) someone should tell Ricci McLeod that if he’s playing a wannabe-tough teen, then spending the whole time in a frozen pout really doesn’t help the machismo.


And then the Edinburgh transfers begin.  I went back to see Thom Pain again on its Soho opening.  (Frustrated exhibitionist that I am, I remarked to its producer after seeing it in Edinburgh, “Damn you, that makes three plays I want to perform before I die!”)  I was a little worried that it might not have the same impact on a subsequent viewing.  My fears were groundless; it’s still magnificent.  James Urbaniak has enlarged his performance just a little to take account of the Soho space, not too much; and Will Eno’s monologue remains a mesmerising hour-long expansion of Samuel Beckett’s “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”  Let me also take this opportunity to slip in one more plug for the performer of Hard To Believe at the Riverside, big Séan Kearns, whom I’ve seen playing a range of roles from Lennie in Of Mice And Men to the Nurse in Romeo And Juliet, and who deserves to be beloved of thousands.

The Pull Of Negative Gravity has received no reviews on its Colchester transfer (it being a co-production between that city’s Mercury Theatre and the Traverse in Edinburgh), so it would be unfair of me to pre-empt its yet-to-be-reprinted reviews here.  Of the remaining transfer, Bombshells, it’s worth pointing out a significant difference between the Edinburgh and London versions: Edinburgh Fringe audiences saw four monologues staged without a break, whereas the version at the Arts reinstates two further pieces and an interval.  Look carefully at the dates above each of its reviews, and you may conclude as I do that critics seem to find more flab in the London version.  Alastair Macaulay is moved to particular mordancy, in a review that drips with his relief at having been excused Edinburgh this summer, rather leaving it all to FT colleagues who shall remain modestly nameless...

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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