Thursday, July 10, 2003

The Elephant Vanishes

Complicite @the Barbican, 3rd July

JAMES says:

Based on 3 short stories by Haruki Murakami, this play was performed in Japanese by Japanese actors but with a British director and crew. Subtitles were displayed on a screen above the stage. While odd to start with, one quickly became used to this in the way that you do with a subtitled film. We were sat on the circle, however, and I hear tell that those in the stalls got sore necks from looking up at them continually. Well, hah, serves them right for having so much money. The play begins with a Japanese women explaining how the performance is delayed due to problems between Japanese and English systems, before launching on an impromptu lecture on light, which ends showing how ink spreads in a glass of water, but cannot be taken out again. Action and consequence. Then we’re into the play proper.

The set is effective, with a solitary fridge forming the stationary heart around which tables, chairs and beds revolve. The set changes themselves become performances, settling in what you think is the scene, before transforming again. The play takes the form of two distinct performances, book ended by the tale of the vanishing elephant. This was to my mind the weakest part of the performance. While containing good set pieces, such as the salaryman slowly eating his breakfast while reading his paper, projected onto a giant video screen at the back of the stage, there was too much repetition, and not enough emotion for my liking. No actual elephants, unfortunately, but they got round that alright.

The second piece was a tale of a couple who were so hungry they perform a night robbery on a McDonalds. This was expertly performed, with the main character both performing in the action and narrating as he hung above the scene on wires. This was used to its full potential, with the man walking up fridges, and gazing over screen doors at an imaginary sea. The story itself, as well as being incredibly amusing, was a superbly dreamlike affair, where events seemed to have an emotional reality, even though they made no narrative sense.

The final segment also worked more in the subconscious, although there was more of the nightmare than the dream in it. A woman, bored of her housewife life, stops sleeping and starts reading Anna Karenina. What starts as a fairly straightforward monologue to camera descends into delirium, as the set shifts and replicates itself, and the woman becomes four women, all acting simultaneously. It is hard to keep track of everything, but the lack of a strict narrative line means you don’t feel you have to,. The scenes become increasingly menacing, with sudden flashes and loud noises breaking up the lullaby soundtrack, and by the end the link between sleep and death, and fear, become explicit. The final scene, confronting the horror of mortality, is truly unsettling. Ironically enough, this was also the section that Debbie managed to fall asleep in, though she claimed to have been enjoying it ‘immensely’ up to that point.

While three distinct performances, the repetition of themes and a continuing dreamlike surreality means the shifts never felt disjointed. All are in some way tales being told, as befits the source material, and the soundtrack is just as effective in creating the mood as the scenes or actors. It’s a fantastic advert for the work of Murakami, and a really thought provoking night out.


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