Friday, October 28, 2016

The Turquoise Elephant

Photo by Brett Broardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, by Stephen Carleton, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 14 October - 26 November.

THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT by Stephen Carleton, says the back of the Currency Press play/program publication, is a 'shockingly black, black, black political farce' about Climate Change, which won the 2015 Griffin Theatre Award.

According to Yuval Noah Harai, the author of HOMO DEUS, Humankind has locked itself into a double race. We champion and feel compelled to speed up the pace of scientific progress and economic growth while also staying one leap ahead of ecological disaster. The good news has been that for some hundreds of years we have enjoyed a growing economy without having been prey to ecological meltdown on a grand scale. We have, so far, managed to pull through. But who knows if science can, in the future, simultaneously save the economy from freezing and the ecology from boiling.

Of course an ecological collapse will have different consequences for the different strata of us humans, for when  it strikes (or if, says some! ...  ?) the poor will suffer more than the rich. We talk a lot about global warming but in practice we are unwilling to make serious economic, social or political sacrifices to stop the catastrophe. Our presidents, ministers and CEOs (the rich) are willing to take a gamble, a risk, that it won't happen on their watch, or not, at least, in their personal futures, so delay enacting what they know and have discussed should be done. Besides, perhaps, they believe, science will come up with a 'hi-tech Noah's Ark', at least for the rich, who will most likely be able to afford it, while the poor drown. The poor will never be able to board that Noah's Ark.

Why aren't the poor, then, protesting? Because they know that they will bear the cost of economic stagnation, for in the capitalist world the lives of the poor only improves when the economy grows. Protecting the environment is a very nice idea but the pragmatics of economic aggrandisement on one hand, or survival, on the other, trump action (Who said Trump?) And it is a long way off, isn't it? At least generations, if not a century or two? And so, as Tony Abbott has declared: Coal is still King for Australia.

Stephen Carleton in his program notes tells us that he wrote this play, watching the continuing global warming disaster reports and seeing that rather than galvanising 'us' into action, we just seem to do more and more nothing and that we are doing it on a grander and grander scale - we prefer to deny it. He hopes that his play, THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, will spur us to ask what is to be done and who should do it.

Mr Carleton has created two rich old women (filthy rich grotesques!) living with their niece in an elaborate 'fortress' of luxury, overseeing the plight of a rancorous and rebellious poor, outside their triple glazed windows - the temperature down there in a Sydney, 'sometime in the near future', is some 50 degrees.

Firstly, there is Augusta (Maggie Dence) - a member of a rich ruling class, who takes a political stand of denial of human responsibility for the environmental events outside her window and will 'govern' from that point-of-view and propagate that it is just the normal course of nature moving into a new cycle towards an 'Ice Age'.

Secondly, there is Olympia (Belinda Giblin), her sister, just as rich, who sees the ecological cataclysm of the planet as a kind of exciting tourism opportunity, a source of entertainment which she must witness, flying (boating) around the world to watch the extinction of the planet's wonders at the different and many crucial moments.

Then, there is the niece, Basra (Olivia Rose), also moderately, independently, rich, and the inheritor-to-be of all her aunts' monies, who has not left this 'fortress' of artificial environment for years, but writes a blog about all that she sees of the gathering evidence of the environmental meltdown with a naive conscience and perception - a woman of lots and lots of words but of no actions.

Visi/Vika (Catherine Davies), identical twins - which nobody knows or suspects  (least of all the audience) - works as new hired help for this family but is a plant for the radical environmental activists called The Cultural Front of Environmental Preservation. These twins are to infiltrate and create havoc in this bastion of wealth and power.

The last character is Jeff Cleveland (Julian Garner), a scientist/entrepreneur with all the gifts of an 'Elmer Gantry' figure who arrives looking for investors to build his environmental dome in the desert for the survivors of the collapse of the planet (Mr Harari's rich and 'hi-tech Noah's Ark?)

We also meet via a video link a Masked Figure (iOTA) who spouts (shouts) threatening and dire diatribes. He is the spokesman of The Cultural Front of Environmental Action - and looks like a version of Krusty, the Clown from the Simpsons. He intrudes on the live action of the play to report the end of it all, matching natural meltdowns with terrorist acts against the 'system'.

Finally, we have the spectral image of an elephant - the elephant of Climate change - a turquoise elephant, that sheds a tear, that comes to haunt them, us, all.

THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT has a sextet of vivid satiric representatives of some of the current players in the present real world. People that we already know, that we can recognise beneath the Design and Directorial labourings of this production. The problem with the play is that that is, really, its entire content: 'Here they are. Let's lambast them with grotesquery. Now, hold on, laugh some more, because here they are again saying funnier things, and occasionally, even doing funny things.' They repeatedly spout grotesqueries of their lives that just re-enforcers their obvious identities. They do not spout, however, debate, discussion, or intellectual grappling with the economic, social or political dilemmas of the situation. The play just tells us in an exaggerated manner that there is a problem and here are some of the 'actors' in this problem, and whoops, there is that elephant again!

The content is for the most part pseudo-intellectual and is more pre-occupied in the laughs it can create around these people and their 'type' than with any insights/debate/or interrogation of how to solve the problems. They see the turquoise elephant in the room, over the 90 minutes or so, several times, but never ever engage with it.

Saying that it is there - "look"- is not enough for an audience in October, 2016. It is what most of us are doing desperately everyday ourselves, pointing to the elephant - "look" - when we confront/contemplate our governments. Mr Carleton is telling us something we already know, and I don't know if 90 minutes of repeated comedy tactics, no matter how diverting or inventive, is sufficient to sustain real interest, especially if you care about the issue and have seen the elephant yourself.

The writing is witty - dwelling mostly in the sphere of witty-camp: i.e a sort of outrageous one-up-manship comedy - mostly clever 'gags', of a juvenile sensibility, with few intelligent interactions aiming for serious contemplation/conversation (oh, for a Mr Stoppard). THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT became a tiresome and frustrating experience: 'No meat, all potatoes'

This play, on paper, ticks some boxes of interest that could justify, for some, its award and production:

  1. It deals with the greatest 'moral problem' of our time: Climate Change. How it deals with it is not significant - it mentions it often  enough - tick.
  2. It has a cast of 4 women, one man and a masked figure - tick
  3. The masked figure can be pre-recorded - saves on a weekly wage - tick.
  4. One of the women talks (briefly) of a middle-eastern heritage and has observed torture (not white), named wittily, Basra (get it) - tick.
  5. It is kind of funny and should entertain, distract, the 'bums-on-seats - tick.

And if one can get one of the genius of flagrant style to Direct and a team of like-minded artists, we can dazzle with avant-garde panache if not with stimulating, thoughtful content. A 'bread and circus' type entertainment: 'Let's do it.'

For, in Sydney, FORM or STYLE more often than not, trumps CONTENT. (Who said Trump, again?) Flash and dash will bewilder the audience into not too close a look at what it is they are watching. Climate Change is a hot issue, it can look trendy - it will be, must be, then, cutting edge! How in touch with the zeitgeist will I feel at the Griffin SBW Stables Theatre, afterwards, eh? As well, it is not at all confronting just mostly poking fun - a good night out.

So, what this play has been gifted with (thank god) is a spectacular theatrical sleight-of-hand by the Production creators led by Gale Edwards, as Director, giving a robust over-the-top theatrical cover (distraction) for the action/content of the play; Brian Thomson, as Set Designer, seducing us with an impeccably glamorous, gleaming look (sort of retro-80's); Emma Vine, as Costume Designer, dazzling us with a parade of wigs and dress of seemingly Eiko Ishioka inspiration (Bram Stoker's DRACULA); Verity Hampson, with wizardry, in control of the Lighting and Audiovisual Design; Jeremy Silver, in charge of the Sound Design; and, lastly, a Videographer named Xanon Murphy!(no program bio!)

It has, too, two actors, a remarkably adept and winning Ms Giblin and Mr Garner, who have the requisite consistency of skills and style to make this play work as comic. They have the capacity to create inklings of a reality to 'ground' their characters and are then able with impressive timing and imaginative joie de vivre bloat them into believable presences, for all of their stage time - both, seem to have the Ab-Fab (or, even Fawlty Towers) capacities to take us confidently into the stratospheres of Mr Carleton and Ms Edwards' Monty Python-like world. The other actors are less convincing or less consistent or both, unfortunately.

A major flaw is the videography of the Masked Figure. It is always difficult to have to pre-record and then slip it into the stream of the playing of a live performance. The captured material cannot be adjusted to the audience or the other players, in the actual performance, and so does not always have the feel that it is in the same play. The tone, the manic progression of the performance elicited from iOTA seems overblown and sits unconvincingly, and worse, often unintelligibly, within the frame work of the live action. One ponders, "What if it had been done live? What would its impact have been?" Reading the script revealed some of its relevance, missed in the viewing of it.

(For me, this Masked Figure represents a manifestation of an environmental activist that seems fairly misconceived as to the kind of temperament and serious consideration that the men and women that I have met as environmental activists have generally displayed - certainly, those with a 'terrorist' bent would have been detected and quickly weeded out. An 'activist' and a 'terrorist' are of very different sensibilities - and, probably, that contention, will hold even in a catastrophic 'sometime in the near future'. One could have taken real offence.)

When the moment comes for us to choose between economic growth and ecological stability, we have all mostly, so far, preferred growth. Consequently this is the world and crisis we live in and with now. Mr Carleton tells what we already know and I don't believe this play has shown us anything of much originality so as to spur us into considering what to do next and who should do it, as he had hoped. What he has done, for some, is create a set of distracting laughs from the issue.

Impressed by the politics of Eugene Ionesco's RHINOCEROS was what inspired Mr Carleton to write THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT. Unfortunately, for Mr Carleton and us, this Turquoise Elephant is no Rhinoceros. Ms Edwards with her imagination for 'smoke and gloss-gleam' has camouflaged and deflected as best she can the paucity of the content of this play (It is essentially an extended revue sketch). What she has done is kind of miraculous. What could she do with a great play? For goodness sake, someone, give her one.

Oh, my.

Go if you want.


1. Yuval Noah Harari - HOMO DEUS  - A Brief History of Tomorrow - 2015 - Harvill Secker, London.

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