The Arcola Theatre’s exciting Grimeborn festival has enriched their 2018 programme with Stanley Silverman and Richard Foreman’s revolutionary 60s masterwork: Elephant Steps for three exclusive performances only. The 50th anniversary of Elephant Steps’ and its European premiere also coincide with the composer’s 80th birthday. (Each performance includes a post-show Q & A with Silverman.)
At the Arcola’s Studio 1, the 60s looks and sounds groovy, ‘baby’. Patrick Kennedy directs this exciting historical work utilising the medium-sized stage and filling it up with flip doors, incense, cucumbers, elephant masks, fake guns and all-round 60s paraphernalia. Even a white board sort of keeps you posted on what the heck is going on, but fails deliberately.
Some may call the work experimental; others, bizarre, but one cannot deny how avant-garde and edgy Silverman’s craftsmanship stood, then, as a piece written and composed in 1968. It was considered one of the most tempestuous years of the 20th century: America’s military involvement in Vietnam, the growth of Anti-war sentiment, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the violent riots in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, then the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. And let’s not forget The Beatles hottest single ‘Hey Jude.’ Without hesitation, Elephant Steps can be labelled as an aggressive and angry piece.
In no more than 60 minutes, musical genres harmonise, run wild, move and shape shift into otherworldly dimensions. We’re talking operetta, jazz, rock n roll, chamber music, vaudeville and more. In the Arcola space, there’s constant movement: erratic noise in one scene, pleasurable madrigal music and operatic voices in another. Yet this is an occult, surrealist opera, so anything is possible – expect the offering of fresh cucumbers, for instance.
Our lead character Hartman (Jake Stevenson) is suffering from a spiritual illness and only the mysterious Reinhardt can free him. But that’s not the plot. In fact, I’d go as far to say there isn’t one. The piece speaks for its abstract self and it is strung together by a group of vigourous and talented artists. They perform a variety of characters, but it’s hard to pinpoint where everyone is placed in a specific plot. So, don’t look for one!
Stevenson is dark and alert as Hartman, honing in a rich operatic tone. Hannah is strange. But, Kate Baxter makes Hannah’s character vocally strong. Scrubwoman and ragtime lady are outlandish, yet Elissa Churchill portrays them as sparkly and radiant in voice. Jessica Foden and Anna Hallas Smith are animated, hilarious and freakish as the elephant angels. And Otto, depicted by Joshua Lewindon, is wacky, enthusiastic and vocally exuberant. Tom Taplin is weird and wonderful as Doctor Worms, which leaves Blair Robertson as the fun, amusing, yet super serious Max.
Ten triumphant and savvy musicians, including music director Nathan Jarvis, bring Silverman’s 60s sentiment to life. The ensemble includes John Reddel, Tom Knowles, Elaine Booth, Hannah Fry, Nadine Nagen, Ucheena Cohen-Shah, Artur King, Daniele Borgato and Ian Tripp. Their scope of musical expertise spans keys, wind instruments, violin, trumpet, double bass, guitar and drums.
In hindsight, the music, choreography and 60s flair may not be life-changing, now, as it was at its premiere in Tanglewood. At the time, a New York Magazine critic dubbed Elephant Steps as, ‘the best piece of new music I’ve heard in concert all year.’ 50 years have passed and the world has changed dramatically, but if someone wants a peek of the 60s through a pair of John Lennon’s hippie sunglasses, look no further.
Elephant Steps is showing at the Arcola Theatre on 20, 21 & 22 August 7. 30 pm. For more information on the Grimeborn Festival and get tickets, click here.
I was provided a press ticket to review the show