A notably Japanese-themed year for the London theater reaches an exalted level with “The Elephant Vanishes,” in which English director Simon McBurney has joined forces with a Tokyo theater troupe to devise a multimedia theater piece that pushes Complicite’s always adventurous boundaries further still. Adapted from the short stories of Haruki Murakami, the 54-year-old Japanese scribe with the decidedly surrealist bent, “Elephant Vanishes” begins as deadpan standup comedy — so spontaneous is the opening riff that not everyone realizes it is part of the show — only to deepen into a melancholy yet witty meditation on loneliness and loss, a vanishing that besets not just the elephant of the title but any of us at a time of disequilibrium and flux.
I dragged my heels somewhat about catching the play’s limited showing at the Barbican, the production’s first stand outside its Japanese preem in May. (A return U.K. visit has been mooted for 2004, along with a New York run.) But after the empty-headed, projection-heavy theatrics of a concurrent Barbican Center entry, Peter Sellars’ vacuous staging of the John Adams oratorio “El Nino,” “Elephant Vanishes” emerges as an even more singular tonic, its high-tech wizardry and high-wire demands always amplifying the emotional heft of the show rather than substituting for it.
Indeed, it’s unusual, to say the least, for so tech-driven a piece to touch an audience to this degree. As McBurney, a directorial wizard himself, bleeds one story into the next, so, too, do the images coalesce until the audience ends up inhabiting its own “wakeful darkness,” to cite a phrase from the play that approximates the state to which great theater can deliver us.
A program essay by McBurney likens Murakami’s work to that of David Lynch, who certainly shares the Japanese writer’s sense of an ordinary-seeming world slowly spinning off its axis. And what could be more ordinary — more recognizable, really — than the high-tech Japan of Ruppert Bohle and Anne O’Connor’s projections and Michael Levine’s set? You recognize the domestic appliances and the McDonald’s golden arches helping to posit a physical landscape that on several occasions bears down on the audience with a blinding barrage of lights. (For those literally wincing moments, credit lighting designer Paul Anderson.)
But it isn’t just the unfamiliarity of the Japanese language that tips off a spectator to the uneasiness of a time where any talk of “unity” (the script’s preferred word) couches countless instances of disorder and distress beneath.
How else to explain the fact that the errant elephant barely merits a mention in the local press (apparently, the elderly pachyderm clambered over the elephant house walls, its shackles still intact), when the fluctuations of the yen and the ravages of SARS dominate instead? And just as a solitary man is left pondering this state of affairs in his pajamas, chomping a biscuit while thumpingly elephantine footsteps punctuate the soundscape of the play, the scene shifts, a “pow” or two is heard, and a burglary is taking place: A newlywed Tokyo couple in quest of a Big Mac who are happy to pay for their large Cokes since they are “stealing bread, nothing else.” (What about the special sauce?)
Easily the most rending vignette is the third one, in which sleep deprivation is seen to lead to this play’s equivalent of what George Eliot has called “the noise on the other side of silence.” A woman married to a “strange-looking” (her word) dentist hasn’t slept for 17 days and yet doesn’t feel sleepy. Instead, she gives herself over to epic novels (videos reveal her in triplicate reading “Anna Karenina”) and to a cumulative resentment of her husband, who falls asleep at once “as if he were dead” — which in a way, to his wife, he is.
“Elephant Vanishes” may mean most in cultures like Britain and Japan, where surface formality can quickly fall away to reveal a real glimpse of chaos. But I can’t imagine anyone not transfixed by an ingenious and impassioned cast from Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theater who deliver, and then some, on an evening that ultimately achieves its own dizzying weightlessness. It’s as if that absent elephant had taken to the air, carrying us aloft with it.