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Stealing the show

By: Theatre Scenes

One good reason to appreciate Indian Ink is that they are an established theatre company that take genuine risks in their work while cohesively maintaining a focus towards the longevity of their art. This is by no means a simple or easy achievement. To refrain from resting on artistic laurels requires exploration into new and sometimes unsuccessful territory, which can contradict long-term objectives if those objectives are not both clear and open to interpretation. True success necessitates failure. In art, it’s called development, and as writer Jacob Rajan and writer/director Justin Lewis mark in their programme notes, it doesn’t get easier.

In The Elephant Thief,  their seventh production since the company’s beginning 19 years ago, the reduction of one of Indian Ink’s fundamental components, masks, is the most obvious development. Set and costume designers Stephen Bain and Sarah-Jane Blake have provided an excellent counterbalance to this, with incredibly detailed costumes that not only inform the characters, but also allow the actors to embody them to their comedic extremes.

Patrick Carroll exemplifies this point, stealing every scene with chameleonic skill, without ever intentionally detracting from the work or his fellow cast. Providing the vocals for the eponymous elephant, Balthazar, Carroll and puppeteer Jonathan Price bring the purely functional character to life with grace and magnitude, although the attempted degree of realism in the puppet, especially the eye, does evoke a sense of the uncanny valley.

Like Carroll, Nisha Madhan is given equal opportunity to display her talents with a variety of characters, and her asides to the audience and engagement in the less expected moments on the night demonstrates her relaxation and confidence on stage. Julia Croft is tasked with the most difficult character, in that she has a genuine internal conflict, which, while given the opportunity for redemption, is more black and white in comparison to even some of the smallest characters.

As the titular elephant thief, 2014 Toi Whakaari graduate Vanessa Kumar presents her character with a well-pitched, naïve honesty, but Leela is an inactive protagonist. Her intentions are often at odds with the basic concept of a hero’s journey and her role as a reluctant mahout invites a catharsis that is simply not explored. Added to this is the fact that her entire purpose culminates in a moment that not only could have been achieved by one of the other characters, but also has no negative consequence considering the decision she makes – though it does lead her to make the step into the final stage of her journey.

The entire cast engage openly and honestly with the work, and the enjoyment they have is articulated especially when the fourth wall is broken. In these moments, the piece lifts dramatically as audience reciprocation allows them to engage with the commentary the work provokes. The commentary, however, seems to have overshadowed the story itself.

At two and half hours long the show never wanes, but it does maintain a relatively tedious progression. The plot extends and expands, but asides from two moments (one of dramatic shift in character and one of aesthetic beauty) the pace does not vary in relation to the scene dynamics. The plot extensions are genuinely intriguing and the expansions reveal a greater scheme to the work, but much of this is told, not shown. The penultimate speech by Madhan’s Prime Minister, Sonia Ambhardi, which sits at the opposite end of the polemic spectrum to Kali’s ethereal musings, feels like a polemic argument from 1960s absurdist theatre, and while the message is both a clear and arguable one, the play presents it beyond the subtlety available through the elements of theatre, as opposed to intertwining the minute details of the political, spiritual, and environmental components of the story to become more than the sum of its parts.

Indian Ink has cultivated an admirable attitude towards truly developing their craft, an attitude from which many other companies and practitioners could learn. In a country so young, their theatrical voice is unique, and potentially the most authentically Kiwi to emerge from the melting pot of our Asian, Pasifika, indigenous, and colonial heritage. While this time they may not have found a cohesive flow between story and message, The Elephant Thief truly contributes to the debate of what is New Zealand theatre.

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