Reconciliation is one of the great issues of our age. After Belsen, Belfast and Baghdad, how do we move forward? The question has been positively addressed in South Africa, where telling the truth about Apartheid is considered the best way to make amends. This philosophy of truth and reconciliation underpins “Elephant,” a U.K.-South Africa collaboration for auds over the age of 8. But, despite the energy of the African dancing, the sweet vocal harmonies of the traditional music and the value of the message, the show is disappointingly ponderous.
Developed in a number of phases since 2004, “Elephant” is a joint effort between Dodgy Clutch, a community arts org from northeast England, and the internationally renowned Market Theater of Johannesburg. The creative teams of both companies contributed to the shaping of the story and the development of the design. After a couple of tours of the U.K. and South Africa, helmer Ozzie Riley’s production is now en route to Zaragosa’s Expo ’08 in September and Gotham’s New Victory Theater next year.
Show’s chief virtue is the life-size, life-like elephant puppets that stalk the stage like wise old ghosts. Manipulated by single actors, the light-weight creatures have a slow, graceful and dreamy quality that suggests a level of spirituality to which human beings can only aspire. At the same time, they suggest the formidable power of the animals, whose strength is matched only by the deathly force of a bullet.
Curiously, given the play’s title, the puppets are employed with restraint, appearing rarely like the elusive beasts in the wild. As a result, we savor their presence, even as we long for them to take a more active role in the story.
That story is a fable about Chief Zanenvula (an authoritative Lindani Nkosi), a tribal elder who, expecting to be welcomed with open arms at heaven’s gates, is surprised to be turned away. The casual sins of his past have caught up with him and only by revisiting his life’s misdemeanors, with Pady O’Connor’s irritatingly twitchy devil in tow, will he be given a second chance.
That’s the cue for Thabang Ramaila and Zamuxolo Mgoduka to enact the life of the young chief and his brother, whose jealous rivalries lead to the gratuitous murder of the great elephants. “By killing that elephant you lost your soul,” the chief is told at the start of his journey to redemption.
Unlike his brother who has a gift for speaking to the animals, the chief admits he “never allowed the vision to come true,” a metaphor for anyone who fails to live up to their ideals for their country’s future.
If only such a simple tale didn’t take two hours to work itself out. The combination of narrative, puppetry, dance and song is highly uneven; the music seeming to draw out the story for the sake of padding rather than having a direct connection to it.
Every bite-sized chunk of story is interspersed with routines by performers who have no apparent role in the action. This creates an uncertain sense of the community where the tale originates, not helped by frequent use of out-of-place contemporary Western choreography.
The show is at its best when its African music casts an infectious spell, but “Elephant’s” strengths are undermined by poor pacing, irrelevant material and non-African content.