Wonderful Combination Of Talents Entrancing

By Gail Pittaway (Theatre Review)

#SeriousLaughter is their Twitter moniker and sure enough Indian Ink’s latest joyful production with soulful intent has themes of mythology, ecology, global economy, politics, religion – and the new religion, science – all layered with internationalism, bubbling away under the surface of some fabulous comedy.

In The Elephant Thief, authors Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan still keep to their own traditions of masking and puppetry, although these are somewhat pared down for this show, with one vast puppet (the title is a clue) and a superb array of false teeth for the main characters, from subtle pearlers to face picket fences that are challenging to watch and no doubt to wear. Unlike most of their previous plays, with simpler narrative lines, this one shoots off several trajectories like little sky rockets until they meet in the play’s second half.

Set in an India of the future, with a well-established space programme, the play centres on the adventures of Leela (Vanessa Kumar), the only survivor of a mudslide which ravaged her village. She comes down from the hills to a town in search of Balthazar, the elephant her father had trained her to handle, who is the last elephant in India. Unworldly, honest and awkward, Leela encounters crooks, charlatans and officials, all of whom are nasty and cynical; who want to exploit her and Balthazar as symbols, as subjects of experiments, even for their organs.

The parade, even avalanche, of people out to use them is played out in fast funny sequences with quick changes of accent, head gear and costume by Jonathan Price, Patrick Carroll and Nisha Madhan. There’s the pair of hunters, the scientists, the jailer and her psychopath son, the priest of Kali and the supplicant, a lost father and son; but no-one it seems, wants to help her to restore the simple world she has lost. Even Irina, the half Russian half Indian defective detective who appears to befriend her, has plans for Leela and Balthazar to serve Sonia Ambhardi the Prime Minster (another brilliant cameo from Nisha Madhan) and make history for India.

The set design with a vast collaged floor mat and rows of hanging plastic roofing panels is fully deployed by the production and creates screens for shadow films, a reflective backdrop for the clever lighting effects and contrasting moments of darkness. Jane Hakaraia, Sarah Jane Blake and Stephen Bain have created a unity of impact with these elements, no more brilliantly revealed than in the final scenes of the play which take on an out-of-earthly reality.

The music and sound design of this performance (David Ward) are also beguiling and deceptively simple, relying heavily on timing and quick turns about with electronic keyboards, sitar and a spectacular array of percussion instruments. But the most important instrument of all is the euphonium which gives tunes to the many parades and breath to the elephant.

As with previous Indian Ink productions, the musicians’ section is visible and to one side of the main performance area, and here all the actors participate in making the many sounds and effects that form the comedy and the action, from the electronic swipe of the jail lock, to the sounds of guns, slaps and the beeps of transparent communication gizmos.

Some of the jokes and puns are so corny they are ‘groan out loud’ – as when night falls (sudden darkness and the sound of a crash) and some of the humour is bleak, such as when a mysterious man (the outstanding Patrick Carroll) enters appearing to be creating a mask out of clay and we realise it is a reference to Leela’s father’s death by mudslide. There are also moments of great beauty as when Leela sings and leads Balthazar, so carefully given life by Julia Croft and Jonathan Price and the final caravanserai, when Julia Croft picks up the call and they sing all the way to the end.

This wonderful combination of people has once again brought an entrancing piece to the stage. I hope it tours and I hope it comes back to Hamilton after the honour of hosting this world premier season, as there is so much to savour that I want to see it again.