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It is 1945, and the city is aflame – Dresden lies in ruins. Out of this burning wreckage flees an unlikely trio: Lizzie, her mother, and an elephant named Marlene. And thus begins The Barn Theatre’s An Elephant in the Garden, adapted by Simon Reade from the book by Michael Morpurgo. As the first of two adaptations being revived for the digital stage, its message is a bright and hopeful one. Beneath the horrors of war and its destruction of human livelihood lies the kindness and generosity of strangers, small bastions of joy.
As the eclectic trio embark upon an arduous journey across the country, from Dresden to Heidelberg, they encounter a host of people: a Canadian navigator named Peter, an elegant Countess, and a rambunctious group of twenty choir boys. What makes this all the more astonishing is that Alison Reid is the only actress onstage. From start to finish, she embodies every single character within the play. She bursts with innocence and naiveté when playing young Lizzie, exudes maternal love and confidence as Mutti (German for mother), and even adopts a plodding gait as Marlene the elephant. The pure physicality of Reid’s performance left me feeling exhausted as I watched her leap from end to end, climb up onto ledges, hold an imaginary pitchfork. In a wondrous scene, she acts as Peter leading them cautiously with his compass held out and smoothly metamorphoses into Marlene plodding slowly behind. Oh, and how could I forget- she also juggles!
The energy of Reid’s performance is what keeps me engaged from beginning to end, despite the rather monotonous videography. For an hour, the angles alternate between a wide shot of the whole set and a close-up of Reid’s face, which seemed rather incongruous when juxtaposed with her boundless energy. The set is within a circular stage, which initially excites me; I expect perhaps various angles throughout the play providing us with differing perspectives. The shot, however, remains at front and centre throughout, although Reid helps to uplift this immobility with her own agility.
Reid’s playing of Marlene the elephant means that at no point does the audience see an elephant. I am initially disappointed, but by the end I find myself surprised at just how extant this invisible elephant is. She is a tangible presence throughout, despite only being mentioned occasionally. Marlene is always in the background- a comforting, reliable aura whose welfare you cannot help but care for. Just like Lizzie and Mutti, Marlene is a “fleeing refugee, just like everyone else.”
Marlene’s name refers to the singer Marlene Dietrich, which illuminates an important theme: music. In the opening of the play we are embraced by Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 which becomes a motif throughout for peace and introspection. Bach is played during scenes of Lizzie’s family before the war, when she and Mutti are remembering Papi and when they begin their “journey to freedom” towards Heidelberg and the snow melts to reveal glorious springtime. The choir boys they encounter sing to Lizzie and Marlene: “As they sang I lost myself in the heavenly music. I forgot all about the war […] about all the dreadful things that were happening in the world.”
As Lizzie listens and floats up out of the war, we float with her: it gives us time within the play to breathe and reflect. And this is what I appreciate the most about An Elephant in the Garden: even in the darkest of times, when all seems lost, we still have the power to rise and remember even the smallest acts of kindness, generosity and hope.
An Elephant in the Garden is playing at The Barn Theatre until 18 April. For more information and tickets, see The Barn Theatre’s website.