Elephant Steps ★★★

Occult opera takes its audience on an unnerving, unpredictable trip

Jewish American avant garde theatre pioneers Stanley Silverman and Richard Foreman’s ‘occult opera upon perception’ first played with audiences 50 years ago, so this European premiere is an anniversary production too. Elephant Steps first ran just a year after the American love-rock musical Hair, but where that has an urgent (anti-war) message and an integrated score, Elephant Steps seems to seek to confound, to prevent its audience from second guessing, to play with perceptions indeed. In some ways, it harks back to the dawn of Dada and surrealism in the early-20th century, for it is often like watching a painting by Dali or Magritte come to life, though the mini-skirted elephant angels are definitely 60s.

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There is a plot, but it’s hard to discern and, given there’s no synopsis in the programme, you might come to the conclusion that the creators don’t want you to follow it. That’s fair enough. I for one tried to go with the flow – or rather the sharp turns – echoed by the jagged assonances, among which there were moments of conventional beauty to cling to. Hanging on in there also looked like the only hope for the opera’s unfortunate pyjama-clad hero Hartman (Jake Stevenson), who is sick in bed at the start and falls – perhaps gratefully – back into bed at the end, ministered to by a pair of female elephant angels. In the hour between, anointed with elephant ears, he finds himself on a quest, perhaps for a cure. He is led by the mysterious guru-like Reinhardt (the performer’s name is mysteriously absent from the programme, but, spoiler alert, it’s director/designer/choreographer Patrick Kennedy), during which he finds himself in the street and even interrogated on a terrifying radio talk show – and all in his pyjamas.

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Is it all a nightmarish dream for Reinhardt and the audience? Are we tripping or being tripped up? You could call it a marmite show, dividing audiences either infuriated by its opacity or intrigued by its playfulness. Perhaps it falls between the two. If you can get through the maddeningly insistent repetitive chords of the pre-show that greet you as you await the start, there is much to admire, including a veiled bride reminiscent of Gothic art, with music to match, and a peek behind the scenes of American talk radio.

The cast sing out, especially the women, who have smaller roles: elephant angels Jessica Foden and Anna Hallas Smith; Kate Baxter’s bride Hannah; and Elissa Churchill (Scrubwoman and Ragtime Lady, intriguingly surreal roles). The 10-strong orchestra (MD/orchestrator Nathan Jarvis) perched above the action is terrific. But like the subtitles above the walls and windows behind Kennedy’s multi-purpose thrust stage, the whole appears to be designed to obfuscate rather than tantalise, so it’s easy to lose the plot. And not always in a good way.

 By Judi Herman

 Photos by Alessia Chinazzo

Elephant Steps ran Monday 20 – Wednesday 22 August 2018 at Arcola Theatre, E8 3DL. www.arcolatheatre.com/grimeborn