When a circus rolled into the sleepy town of Erwin, Tennessee on 10th September 1916, no one imagined it would mark an infamous occasion in American history. George Brant’s sombre rendering of the macabre events in his award-winning 2007 play Elephant’s Graveyard is effectively restaged online in TPE TV and Arden Entertainment’s digital production.
Through entwined monologues, Brant gives a broad perspective of the fateful circumstances of that September. Mary, a gigantic elephant, is the pride of the circus parade. She draws in both excitable children and listless, repressed denizens of the railroad town. However, when disinterest, incompetence and greed lead to a fatal error, wonderment turns to vengeful bloodlust.
While Phil Sealey’s editing might be a bit rough-and-ready (especially when trying to blend together several individual performances digitally), director Colin Blumenau makes the best of a simple, direct-to-camera approach with Brant’s talking heads. Original folk music written and performed by Luke Potter and interwoven the production team’s clunky catalogue of sound effects, tries hard to root the audience in period and place. However, it’s when the soundtrack peters out completely that the strength of Brant’s colloquial rhythms and aural storytelling really transports.
With only period photographs in unfocused sepia for background, Blumenau allows the audience to focus on the account delivered by a mostly convincing ensemble. As the script gives each idiosyncratic perspective from the hierarchies of the town and the circus, each cast member tries to make their part distinct. Noticeably, some of the southern American accents go awry, but there is genuine poignancy as the tragedy slowly unfolds, especially in Philippa Hogg’s passionate elephant trainer.
While Brant sets the explicit cruelty of humans against the beauty, power and intelligence of the degraded captive giants, Elephant’s Graveyard raises other issues too. Some issues have contemporary resonance, like the stabbing of a hungry townsperson (Nickcolia King-N’Da), the disgusting display recalling Erwin’s history of lynching black people. Yet, in its swift 70-minute runtime, the writer sweeps through rather than lingering on the mustiness of southern Americana.
While it certainly isn’t a pleasant trip to the circus of the past, Blumenau’s well-conceived production might just be worth rolling up for.
Elephant’s Graveyard is online from 17th September until 19th September 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Elephant’s Graveyard here: