Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sacred Elephant


Sacred Elephant
by Heathcote Williams
directed by Geoffrey Hyland
with Jeremy Crutchley
presented by Sheernerve productions in association with Cockpit
f
rom South Africa
British writer Heathcote Williams is known for a set of four extended poems concerned with aspects of environmentalism or wildlife preservation. One of these, Sacred Elephant, has been adapted into a magnificent 70-minute monologue directed by Geoffrey Hyland and performed by Jeremy Crutchley.

The script is mystical, beginning:

The shape of an African elephant’s ear is the shape of Africa.
The shape of an Indian elephant’s ear is the shape of India…
As if Nature had kept an ear to the ground when listening to the elephant’s territorial requests.


It alludes to environmentalism, religion, myth and other mindsets to see the noble beast from an encompassing circle. It’s free verse, at times ironic but usually lyrical. Its outrage at our abuse of the animal is never violent or assaultive. It alludes to the modern (referring at one point, for example, to Cruise missiles), but it spends most of its time in a fascinated admiration:

If Buddha, Lao-Tzu and the Nazarene were not quite men,
Then it is just as likely that some elephants
Were not quite elephants:
That long ago, in an elephant dreamtime,
Some spiritual counterpart amongst them
First took the love of its own kind,
To an unprecedented extreme,
Its memory lingering productively
In their tribal consciousness…
The first altruist.

It spends many lines in worshipful observation:
When in pairs,

Elephants slowly snake their trunks
Across each other’s faces to read the chemical language
Exuding from musk glands in their cheeks;
Then they stop, waveringly,
The tips hover and are cupped against the skin upon the forehead
As if picking up signals from within;
Then their trunks are disconnected,
And wreathed together in a loving knot.

If it’s less mesmerizing when it’s on concrete ground – when, for example, it gives us a statistic of extinction – it’s only because we’ve become accustomed to the enchanting mythical moments that have come before. 


Still, all this would be only writing if it weren’t for the majestic performance of Jeremy Crutchley. He incarnates the lines. He finds diversity where another actor might find sameness. Through meticulous analysis, he breaks the script into little discrete moments, making each fresh, unique and specific. Every instant introduces a new attitude, an emotion we haven’t seen yet.


Speaking of the elephant house, he shifts weight from one foot to another as he describes the elephant’s behavior, but the movement is suggested, not stated. The same applies to his delicate sort of singing. His flowing grey costume and make-up even suggest the elephant, as if we’re watching a humanized beast.


Geoffrey Hyland has directed subtly, keeping the lines flowing without a break as Crutchley speaks them trippingly on the tongue. He’s kept the stage bare. The blocking makes Crutchley the “nearest thing on earth to a cloud”, as the subject of the piece itself is described.


It’s marvelous to see a solo show, the most delicate and vulnerable of all stage forms, made so magical and elegant.