Presented by Barbarian Productions
Directed by Jo Randerson
Produced In Association with Show Pony
Hannah Playhouse, Wellington | November 27-30
The promotional materials for White Elephant promise us a “grandiose, grotesque performance that refuses to be confined to the stage.” The quote is taken from their write-up on the Hannah Playhouse’s (back in a pleasing transformational orientation) website—but this is only half the story told to audiences before they walk through the theatre doors. Pedestrians across Wellington likely have been pitying White Elephant’s graffitied posterage, whose images have been littered with phallic imagery, ‘pigs’, ‘99%-1%’, and the $ symbol. Dirtywork in actuality done by the committed production team’s night-crew over the past week. You may also have read that the ticketing system utilised by the show asks audience to pay what they can afford. The thematic core of the show is apparent in every facet of the production’s presentation, from its masked ushers to its unconventionally assembled army of performers.
Under the direction of Jo Randerson, we are witness to a characteristically off-the-wall cabaret of sorts hosted by three physically agile Zani and three physically challenged bouffon, the latter whom represent the aforementioned 1%. These cheeses range from the big, to the very big, to the wraith like. The triangular Tom Eason, the spherical Anya Tate Manning, and the square Madeline McNamara. The performers prattle on without pause for the entirety of the show’s single act, and though at first their assault of babble seems incomprehensible, audiences soon pick up on the game and hear the exquisite voice pops from each performer—most of these one liners are quotable to a fault but before you can set one down to memory another comes growling out. The Zani by comparison work in total silence, and the three dancers (Melanie Hamilton, Luke Hanna, Natano Keni) all tell a simple story of the subjugated masses, toiling beneath the demands of the boss bouffon. All performers know their note, their function, and deliver with professional flair and clownish honesty. Their antics are initially bound by light to the stage, but an effective combination of sound and lighting design (by Eden Mulholland and Rowan McShane respectively) slowly opens up and comes to encompass the audience and each nook and cranny of the Hannah’s interior. We are made to feel part of the story, and complicit in its cruelty and silliness.
The show has one mandate, and delivers. We see a class struggle, one that has been waged over time—though now the gap between the uber-rich and dirt-poor seems larger than ever. The white elephant I am left with at the end of the performance are the Bouffon themselves—leeches upon a world that suffers without an option to break free. The basic nature of the situation laid out is that the Mighty have already inherited the world, and now we must cope as best we can with their ownership. It’s a dire truth, communicated through a sort of resigned rage.
There is a glimmer of hope/tenderness in the parting moments of performance—a final act that is wholly surprising and unlike anything else I have seen on a Wellington stage. I encourage readers to pay what they can afford to see a show that will make you think, make you laugh. After two years of development, this work has reached the stage with a vigour and a boldness that you cannot help but admire.