Courtney Rose Brown
Set and costume designers Stephen Bain and Sarah-Jane Blake, create a strong and distinct aesthetic design, in using predominately a faded and muted colour palette with the odd patch of colour throughout. The set consists of hanging and floor level sheets of a corrugated iron, that often made me think of shipping containers. The sheets act as wings as well as screens to support shadow play. This design creates a distance between the audience and the presentation of the more violent and metaphorical scenes, which are extenuated with music. The floor is covered entirely with a sheet of images consisting of bright primary colours patched-worked together and smeared over with clay. This faded aesthetic in conjunction with a title of ‘India in the future’ projected by cardboard cutout onto the screens, provides a strong context to the world that we are entering.
The set is not only strong visually but dynamic in purpose. It is continually transformed with the action with moments of surprise and elevation of suspense, so I cannot give any specific examples without giving away plot developments. At times set changes are a little too ambitious as pieces are awkwardly manoeuvred to set a new scene, in particular with the construction of gates, but are often helped with the use of music to make it appear more fluid.
With the introduction of characters of higher rankings stronger and bolder colours appear in the costumes during the second half. This is contrasted against Leela’s costume of faded greens which are torn and well worn. A striking decision for costume design is the exaggeration of bodies and physical features which add to a stereotypical presentation of the jailer with her protruding belly and Peter with his giant pecs. In addition, the performers wear false teeth that jut out, which one would assume would make diction difficult but does not hold the performers back.
Their ‘elephant’ is life-like in size, and incredibly bold and beautiful.The creator of the elephant is not listed in the programme, so I assume it was done by Bain and Blake. The controller of the elephant perfectly manoeuvres the size, with fluid movements, and in the front row I am lucky enough to see the detail and the kindness behind these movements.
The performers instantly bring the audience into the narrative, so that even when characters are presented as evil, it is hard not to like them. Nisha Madhan gives a stand out performance, impressive in her clear depictions of a range of characters. Manouevering between them with ease she is charming and graceful on stage and brings a new life force to each one. Patrick Carroll also delivers a charismatic and enchanting performance. Again, playing an array of characters, he is not afraid of the grotesqueness of his presentations. Jonathan Price holds his own amongst Carroll and Madhan, especially with his role of Frank the overbearing Australian. I only wish there had been more of him, especially in the second half.
Julia Croft performs Irina Sharma, a cold, half Russian detective, but manages to win us over with her natural charisma and comedic timing. When Croft shows a glimpse of vulnerability, in particular about her father’s death, the audience is wholeheartedly sympathetic. Vanessa Kumar performs Leela Devi as a naive, loveable, inspirational character. Kumar is hilarious and relaxed in her characterisation. In her entrance, she skilfully crafts a friendship with the audience and we are on her side the whole time, trying to hold on to hope alongside her.
Jane Hakaraia generates a sense of fun in her lighting design as she incorporates many opportunities to use and find light in a unique way by straying from solely using rigged lighting. This includes the use of torches and cellphones which the performers hold and use to draw attention. Low levels of light also add to moments of surprise and amazement, even making me think there is a real elephant on stage because the audience has the same perspective as the characters do. One of my favourite design elements of the show, is a brilliant aspect of Hakaraia’s lighting design, which again, was hand held, but I don’t want to give away what it was or how it was done, but it has the audience in awe and giggles.
In the second half, the audience seems to warm up more and there is a clear difference in the amount of laughter. The biggest laugh of the night was a throw away line of Peter referring to Irina as a “whore” and it was almost as if the audience felt as if they had the permission to laugh at the derogatory behaviour towards women and not at the rest of the content, in fear of being culturally insensitive. In my opinion this is a result of having a predominantly Pakeha audience seeing themselves as the other and not knowing how to cope with this dichotomy. This is evident with Price’s Australian character, Frank, who openly interrupts Indian characters and tries to communicate using their mother tongue. Instead he imitates it poorly despite appearing convinced that what he is doing is more than polite behaviour. Another striking moment occurs when guns are introduced. As the main character, Lelia goes to take a map from her pocket, Irina (a Pakeha character) jumps in front of her with her arms stretched wide in a clear presentation of racial profiling.
There is no doubt that the cast of The Elephant Thief is extremely talented and skilful, working together with electric chemistry. There are a few stumbles during opening night, however, the cast are quick on their feet and manage to improvise their way out of their mistakes. These moments are hard to catch and only add a new energy to scenes. The level of spirit and commitment that the cast place into every joke is impressive and execution is perfect. Despite having such a tough opening night audience, this doesn’t present any obvious knocks to performance.
The story of The Elephant Thief is one that should not be missed and perhaps even watched multiple times to fully emerge into the magic of the story. The rest of the Wellington season at the Hannah Playhouse continues on to the fourth of June. Showing at 7pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8pm on Thursdays through to Saturdays and 4pm on Sundays.
To book online and for more detail about their dates in New Plymouth and Auckland click here: www.indianink.co.nz