You know what we all need right now? In such a bleak, sad time such as this? An utterly depressing true story about human ignorance and the unthinkable cruelty of executing a circus elephant. This must have been the thought process of The Production Exchange (TPE) TV and Arden Entertainment, as they bring us an online adaptation of George Brant’s 2007 award-winning but completely miserable play, Elephant’s Graveyard. It chronicles that fateful few days that led up to the tragic events of 13 September 1913, when the Sparks World Famous Shows circus hung a five-tonne Asian elephant named Mary to a crowd of 2500, and her murder itself.
The day before her execution, we’re told, Mary ‘murdered’ a newly hired and entirely unqualified assistant elephant trainer. We hear how the events that followed unfolded from each of Brants’ talking heads, a variety of people from all walks of life: from circus members to townspeople, marshals to the homeless. Some are less than sympathetic, shall we say, and some (mostly Mary’s colleagues) seem distraught. Dannie Harris as the ballet dancer delivers a particularly emotive performance, as does elephant trainer Philippa Hogg. Most of the casts’ performances are enjoyable, but unfortunately a few of the Southern accents occasionally go awry, which is often distracting.
Luke Potter’s original songs serve to add a certain atmosphere to the piece, helping to ground us within that world. But placing them on either end of the show like bookends means their effect is sadly minimal. While production value is certainly higher than most of the lockdown offerings I’ve seen, something about Phil Sealey’s editing doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. Placing the cast over a blurred sepia photograph as they recite their lines feels a bit like a reality tv show confessional, and what looks like the use of green screen, especially when cast members are moving, throws proportions and perspective way off, and is therefore almost comical.
It seems as though director Colin Blumenau has made the piece as cohesive as possible given the circumstances, and Elephant’s Graveyard is, although I moaned about the sombre subject matter earlier, quite a welcome break from theatre based on loneliness and isolation — things which most of us have had quite enough of the past few months. Brant’s heart-breaking depiction of Mary’s murder is a stark reminder of the capacity for unkindness that some of us possess, and how far we’ve come in our compassion for and understanding of wild animals.
Elephant’s Graveyard played online 17–19 September. For more information, visit The Production Exchange’s website.