Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 3 May
We’ve seen enough McTheatre in recent years to spot the big, spectacular, all singing, all dancing, massive special effect extravaganza a mile off. Inside the profession such shows are frequently seen as uncreative, with actors given little freedom to create characters, becoming more like props than the mighty visual gimmicks that emerge around them.
While Elephant is undoubtedly a spectacle, the Dodgy Clutch production gives the audience more to chew on than the vacuous alarums of a Miss Saigon or Mamma Mia! Part of this is no doubt due to the sense of creative input the ensemble have been given in its development. ‘The way the company devises the piece gives the actors creative control over it,’ explains actor Paddy O’Connor. ‘When it was in its first phase we created character, movement, dance pieces – it’s fundamentally the ensemble’s work. Sometimes as an actor you’re told what to do, but not in this show. As we’re performing and touring, the show keeps changing and developing, so it never gets stale.’
Given its longevity, that’s quite an achievement. The story of an African King who is denied access to heaven due to an inadvertent misdemeanour involving elephants in his youth, the piece was devised with the Market Theatre, Johannesburg to evolve through puppetry, dance and physical theatre. The resultant spectacle has toured worldwide for 12 years; this visit to Scotland promises all the zest of the original. ‘We went to Africa to see the elephants themselves when we devised the show, and have been back many times,’ O’Connor adds. ‘When you experience it firsthand you realise that animals have a massive importance to people there, and tell their own spiritual story. It’s more than just an animal, an elephant, it has its own spiritual life. Its meaning is about hope, and bringing people together.’