Review by Sam Waite
Increasingly, hot-button issues and difficult subjects are being featured and discussed in both the media we consume and the real-life conversations and content we engage with. Portrayals of mental health and discussions therein have become more and more prevalent throughout the twenty-first century – sometimes with criticism levelled at some more reductive suggestions, while social praise and critical acclaim are given to more sensitive, nuanced work. With this delicate balance in mind, I went into The Elephant Song with a certain amount of hesitation.
Directed by Jason Moore, this Canadian piece by Nicolas Billon is here making its UK debut in the Park Theatre’s Park 90 – the play was previously adapted for film, with Billon adapting his own text for the screen. A three-hander taking place entirely within a psychiatrist’s office within a mental institution, the story plays out in real-time with hospital director Erwin Greenberg attempting to attain information about a missing employee from Michael, an intelligent, crafty patient of the missing Dr Lawrence. A nurse familiar with Michael’s file and penchant for trickery, Miss Peterson, assists both where called on and on occasion where not.
Billon’s script is dialogue-heavy and action-light, being confined to a single room throughout, but over little more than an hour, he gives us small insights into his characters and seemingly innocuous references, which later have major payoffs. The significance of elephants to Michael, for example, becomes increasingly apparent until the explanation doesn’t feel like the info-dump it could be in a less capable writer’s hands. The dialogue itself is always believably human, with tempers lost and regained without the carefully crafted persona of each character slipping into any generic archetype.
Jon Osbaldeston does well as Dr Greenberg, a man who could easily become dislikeable should the audience quickly align themselves with Michael. Osbaldeston circumvents this by finding the genuine concern and moments of kindness within Greenberg’s sometimes self-importantly pompous demeanour. His performance is elevated by, and elevates, the work of co-star Louise Faulkner, who brings moments of warmth to a role where a steely disposition is also required at many turns. Miss Peterson can be frustrated with Michael and irate with Dr Greenberg’s belief that he is the smartest man in the room, but she does care deeply about Michael and wants to see him grow and heal.
On the topic of Michael’s well-being and the portrayal of mental illness, Gwithian Evans’ Michael is the standout of this incredibly strong trio. This young man is not the damaged, deluded inpatient lost in his imagined version of the world that he so easily could have been – here, the mental anguish and clear disturbances in Michael don’t overwhelm his personality, charm, and likeability. Things he says are clearly designed to gain a reaction or gain some amount of power over the other person, but this is shown to be part of who Michael the person is rather than a symptom of his illness. Evans is magnificent in his work, bringing a combination of world-weariness and child-like glee to a character barely into his twenties whose love of games and tricks is stifled by his situation and environment.
Ian Nicholas’s design, both costumes and staging, helps to set the scene immediately. We know this is an office at someone’s work rather than their home because of the less-than-brand-new telephone on the desk and the plush chairs arranged to face towards the desk. We also know that it’s winter, even if we completely ignore the miniature Christmas tree periodically moved about by the actors, because Miss Peterson has chosen to layer a jumper over her scrubs. Michael’s shoes, I noticed, are slip-on trainers with no laces required, and his own jumper falls low enough that if Evans is wearing a belt, this isn’t visible and so can be presumed as absent – Michael is, after all, confined to a mental institution and labelled “dangerous” despite his non-violence.
Equally, Eliott Sheppard provides deceptively simple lighting and sound design to the production. While the lights all come down for the show to begin, when the work in the office begins, they seem far brighter than they had been during the incoming – this is, we mustn’t forget, somewhere where body language and facial expressions must be clearly seen, and paperwork must be properly filled in. The music during the incoming is calm, tranquil, and almost not noticed, but raises in volume as the lights go down to begin the show, immediately creating a sense of unease. Perhaps Sheppard’s greatest contribution comes during a slow dimming of the lights, where the miniature Christmas tree is front and centre, it’s scattering of coloured lights a stark contrast to the harrowing scene coming to a close.
Jason Moore’s direction pairs well with Billon’s well-calibrated dialogue. No one ever comes across as erratic or irrational in their changes of mood, and they don’t pause for awkward stretches to allow the clues we’re being drip-fed to sink in. Moore trusts the material and his audience too much to hammer the point home this way and lets us catch what we may and realise what we missed later. He also makes solid choices in the mannerisms and body language of his trio of actors – each holds their body in a way suited to their personality, and simple gestures and the moving of knick-knacks in the office helps to demonstrate the movements of their minds.
This stellar production is in great hands with a cast and creative team who seem to be truly invested in, and have a real understanding of, the work they are presenting. While the play may not be perfect – some will find it too convoluted in its twists, while others will likely guess many of the revelations early on. There are also some stereotypical ideas about absentee or inattentive parents or struggling relationships which will generate eyerolls from some, but sometimes clichés became that way because they really are commonplace issues.
This may be the first time the play has been performed in the UK, but I can imagine a bright future for both the text and team at work here. The Elephant Song is a well-tuned piece of work with a rich, layered text which I would for one would love to see given the opportunity to expand its reach.
The Elephant Song plays at Park Theatre until 11th February. Tickets from www.parktheatre.co.uk
Photos by Giacomo Giannelli