Review of Elephant Steps at the Arcola Theatre London
A man lies very still in a hospital bed. Two angels in miniskirts and high-heeled boots with feathered wings walk about the stage. A man at a desk scribbles nonsense on a pad with an enormous pen. A woman in a ballgown sits in a chair and twitches. Another woman stands holding two canes that have blindfolded baby heads on the ends. A door opens intermittently and a man sprays something from an aerosol can. Every so often two cupboard doors open and a man shouts “68”. A loop of what sounds like a sample from one of Tom Wait’s less accessible songs plays continuously. A screen on a balcony above the stage states “The actors are performing”. And all this before the piece starts and whilst the audience take their seats!
To describe what happens in the next 80 minutes or so of Stanley Silverman’s opera Elephant Steps would be like explaining a Dali painting to a five-year-old child. There seems to be some kind of narrative regarding the man in the hospital bed, a Doctor Worms, Otto and Hannah but I have no idea what that is. Apart from everything I’ve described that was going on before the start, there are characters in elephant ears and giant rubber hands which seem to have a lot of significance but I have no idea what. There are a lot of references to a character called Reinhardt but in the programme the person playing him is represented by fourteen black squares and he never appears (shades of Waiting for Godot?) – is the framed photo on the desk Reinhardt? Every so often enigmatic phrases appear on the big screen such as “Doctor Worms reads Max’s elephant pulse”, “The elephants are not really singing” and “Transcends the world of the cucumber and at the same time it enters that world” – are these clues or instructions – who knows. The cucumber reference comes when the cast starts eating cucumbers and then hands them out to the audience. There’s also a golden cholla bread which has some great significance but what that is, you’ll have to ask Patrick Kennedy the director who in his programme notes states he summoned the images from the “fascinating plane of consciousness just before the zzzz”. Sounds like he’s been eating cheese before he goes to bed – or maybe it’s a cucumber?
So, what about the music – this is an opera after all – in fact as it says on the front of the programme “An occult opera upon perception”. Well it’s a real mixture of styles from atonal contemporary music concrète to 1920’s vaudeville. There’s also a bit of 60s rock, 50s pop, some chamber music and ragtime. The singers all wear the kind of devices worn by tour guides with a head mic and a tiny speaker that distorts their voices – but they use these only some of the time and for no obvious reason. There’s an orchestra of ten who are all excellent playing the eclectic score and accompanying a cast of eight (not including the elusive Reinhardt); this a big production for a run of just three performances.
In his programme notes Kennedy also says “Don’t expect catharsis. Don’t expect linear narrative. Don’t expect to understand”. He also says it a 60-minute production and it was a lot longer than that so I’ll take it all with a pinch of salt.
It’s taken fifty years for Elephant Steps to get its European premiere and there must be a very good reason why it’s taken so long. I’m sure back then it shocked the audiences of the time but things move on and whilst surrealism must have been revolutionary when it burst upon the world, it takes a lot to shock modern audiences. Art should engage, excite, entertain, enervate and sometimes enrage – Elephant Steps fails to do any of these. As one of the phrases on the screen said (probably ironically) “But is it all nonsense?” In this critic’s opinion, it certainly is.
Review by Alan Fitter
The European premiere and 50th-anniversary production of American avant-garde theatre pioneers Richard Foreman and Stanley Silverman’s Elephant Steps, an occult, surrealist opera.
A multi-media rock-opera extravaganza where music, light, images, movement, graphics, films, incense, machinery, props and performers are incorporated into a spectacular mix.
If you like gangster films, rock bands, gypsy violinists, incense or The Sound Of Music then come and see Elephant Steps. Or if you prefer ragtime, silent movies, psychedelic lights or madrigals? You’ll find them in Elephant Steps too.
Critically-acclaimed avant-garde auteur Patrick Kennedy draws inspiration from the work of David Lynch, Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau for this highly anticipated premiere of Elephant Steps.ay production of Waitress – Photographer Joan Marcus
24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL