Elephant absurdity

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The Turquoise Elephant (Queensland Theatre)

June 23

Queensland Theatre’s Play Club continues to find ways to connect with its audiences through the emerging form of online presentations, for the foreseeable future, of great Australian plays. Most recent of these intimate renditions to inspire collective imaginations is the live play reading of “The Turquoise Elephant” by Stephen Carleton over Zoom webinar.

The work’s description of a “shockingly black, black, black political farce” that is “urgent, contemporary and perilously close to being real” is on-point. The colourful story is set in an Australia of the near future, but it could be any first world country such is the universality of it now-more-than-ever important themes. Melbourne has flooded, temperatures are regularly around 50 degrees, more animals are extinct, the last ever snow is melting. The typhooned world is at a tipping point, meaning that environment resettlement refugees and natural disaster tourists have become the norm.

The world into which we are dropped, however, is that of a wealthy Sydney socialite and Macquarie family matriarch Augusta (Andrea Moor) who heads up a conservative movement which denies the human impact of climate change, but who has a climate change refugee, Visi (Nicole Hopkins) as her new maid. While Melbourne is being evacuated and citizens of other cities are in mass panic, Augusta’s place is a formidable fortress of sanctuary that the billionairess shares with her niece Basra (Violette Ayad, in a Queensland Theatre debut), a wannabe aspirational blogger advocate for sustainable change. Enter Augusta’s sister, Aunt Olympia (Barb Lowing)…. and what an entrance it is, despite its occurrence off screen.

While The Cultural Front for the Environment is protesting government action, with undercover operatives ready to resort to attempted murder, there is a proposal to move the country inland and to higher ground. The sisters’ interests are piqued when charming American corporate-type Jeff Cleveland (Thomas Larkin) smooths in with memorable display of mutual affection with Olympia, before offering a ticket out through his Brave New World ‘New Eden’ plan to rebuild humanity from the ground up. Given how disease is wiping out some cities, the timing is particular urgent and so a philosophical conflict ensues. The battle back and forth between Augusta and Basra over climate change is one of self-proclaimed pragmatist vs idealistic moralist and it soon becomes clear that not only is natural selection is to be determined by wealth, but the end of days represents to barrier to making money.

Flamboyant Olympia is a gloriously hedonistic character of operatic excess, enthusiastic for the apocalypse, as long as she can be a voyeur to the world’s environmental collapse. And, uninhibited by the play reading format, Lowing vividly inhabits her flibbertigibbety in every gesture, movement, facial expression and reaction. The sisters are both outrageous characters, obviously fun to play and seeing Moor and Lowing together for the first time ‘on stage’ is certainly worth the wait. One sister doesn’t hear unwanted things, while the other doesn’t see them. Together they are a real treat, bringing to life the playwright’s clever, perfectly-pitched dialogue. There is clear wit to its detail, replicated, in this instance, in costumes and simple props that add immeasurably to the unique, pseudo-stage experience.

Across 11 fast-paced scenes, the changes of which are signalled by Brian Lucas as a masked figure, the story is an absurdist sprint in a “Rhinoceros” sort of way. The elephant of its title ‘appears’ early but resonates throughout as a metaphor of what is happening in the dying world’s room right now. In fact, the titular elephant, is the most vital character, requiring only audience imagination and personal directorial choice in its realisation.

“You’re all crazy!” Visi screams at point and indeed this is true, but what would be the fun otherwise? And Daniel Evans’s direction both maintains the required momentum and balances the ridiculous absurdity and intelligent sublimity of the work’s wild script and wonderful characters, making for a thoroughly entertaining work that we will hopefully see realised on stage proper again sooner rather than later.

Although it was written in 2016, “The Turquoise Elephant” is particularly pertinent at this point in time. It is clearly stuffed with social commentary about global capitalism and climate change denialism, and coincidental current political references that show how we really all should be crying like the elephant.

Territory Truths

Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre Company and Jute Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 6 – 16

A male voice begins from beneath the cloak of darkness, asking what identity the audience can create from just its sounds. What follows this initial challenge is a very human account of the narrator, Russell’s (Benhur Helwend) search for self, set against the story of a city’s attempts to carve out an identity. Russell is determined to be more than just a Friday night drag show (although his Act Three Bassey-esque “This Is My Life” is as impressive as it is thematically appropriate). But he is conflicted by his past. He doesn’t know who his biological father is, his mother Lois (Lauren Jackson) disappeared when he was eight and he has been raised by a conservative father Neville, who carries his own demons from his time in 1960s New Guinea, before repatriation to Darwin.

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Over three acts, and with help from era-evocative costumes and soundtracks, the audience is transported back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and then the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as the city sits poised for political progress. With mentions of mahjong, TAA and apricot chicken, the Tupperware world of 1960s expats is established early in Act One. Newly-married, former hostie Lois doesn’t take naturally to the colonial plantation attitude of some within her new Port Moresby home, clashing deliciously in her interactions with the spiteful Nanette (played to perfection by Suellen Maunder), a woman initially loveably stereotypical in her delight in others’ business and later passively aggressive in her manipulations. With Lois’ public servant husband Neville (Peter Norton) forcussed on his work, she joins the ‘Moresby Arts Theatre’, where her mind is not all that is stimulated.

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Fast forward a stormy post-Tracey Darwin, when the kaftans and crème de menthe are both flowing to a soundtrack of Nana Mascuri and Abba and, unbeknown to Russell, the past arrives to catch up with his mother and tear her away from his life. Then it is 2001 and Russell and his partner Alistair have transformed Russell’s childhood home into a hip, urban art gallery by day, queer cabaret venue by night, much to the chagrin of Russel’s now elderly father.

It is a complex story, directed with precision by Ian Lawson, to account for the multiple roles of four of six actors in the cast. Helwend, in particular shows remarkable versatility, equally convincing in his varied potential father roles of draft-dodging artist, fierce freedom fighter and obliging houseboy, and also especially as his almost eight-year-old narrator self in Act Two. And Jackson captures the conflict of his mother, torn as she is between her need to nurture, want towards wanderlust and dissatisfaction with her lot in life.

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The standout performance, however, comes from the Country Party Minister Neville Senior (Steven Tandy) of Act Three, cutting in his comments to his son, accepting of his party’s impending loss of long-term power and cognisant of his own mortality

Like an anecdotal reflection “Bastard Territory” is not linear in its narrative, but, like memory, the saga jumps around a little in recall of events, all while maintaining a central focus on a flawed family. Stephen Carelton has created a story that is wry with humour, yet powerful and affecting. Some of its most commanding moments come from when dialogue is delivered in unison from the younger Neville, overlooked by his aged self.

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This is what makes the show so rewarding; the fact that at the core of the confessional drama is a beautiful story about people, not just ideas, brought to life by a superb cast. As such, it is well worth the investment of time to join Russell on his journey towards discovery of his truth.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography + Film