The elephant in the room: Griffin’s The Turquoise Elephant

An edited version of this piece originally appeared on artsHub.

One of the first productions I saw at Griffin was Ian Meadows’ Between Two Waves, a finely-wrought and emotional play about the personal toll of climate change. Four years later, Stephen Carleton’s Griffin-award-winning The Turquoise Elephant, is a play about climate change, egos, and running out of time; it explodes onto Griffin’s tiny stage with as much verve, farce, panache and delicious wickedness as it can muster, and it is in may ways both the antithesis and dark mirror of Meadows’ play, as well as being a darkly comic piece of absurdist mastery in the vein of Ionesco.

Carleton’s play revolves around the Macquarie family, a dynasty you could presume has gloriously and triumphantly descended from the fifth governor of New South Wales. Holed up in their triple-glazed hermetically-sealed imposingly fortified compound (with harbour views, naturally), they are the self-styled ‘last bastion of civilisation’ in a world where it’s topping on hundred degrees in the shade, and melting icecaps have become tourist hot-spots. Matriarch Augusta is a formidable opponent to climate change, fiercely denying its existence and vehemently promoting the reliance on fossil fuels to get us through this environmental disaster. Aunt Olympia, recently returned from Greenland, brings eccentricity to a new level, determined to eat every endangered species to extinction; meanwhile, Basra, their granddaughter, blogs and vlogs her way through every political and environmental upheaval, hoping to make a difference. Until Visi arrives. And this enclave is suddenly in the thick of it. And covered in shit.
Directed by Gale Edwards, this production is an exuberant and riotous political farce, decked out in glorious hallucinogenic technicolour. Perhaps better known for her work of scale – think Carmen and Aida on the Harbour, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and Cameron Mackintosh productions and, more recently, Cloudstreet, the opera – Edwards uses this predilection to great effect, and creates a larger-than-life and quite OTT world in which these characters seem right at home.
Brian Thomson’s set – while relatively minimalist – carries us from place to place with ease and deftness, and provides a canvas for Verity Hampson’s saturated and colourful lighting and projections. Emma Vine’s costumes (particularly those of Augusta and Olympia) are pushed well past the boundaries of sane and into the realms of the sublime, and look magnificent, a postmodern Baroque kaleidoscope ala Jenny Kee. Jeremy Silver’s sound design – including a memorable gale-force wind and door-slam for every entrance into the Macquaries’ fortress – glues everything together, while Xanon Murphy’s video segments featuring iOTA are hilariously pitch-perfect.
Edwards’ cast are tremendous too. Maggie Dence’s fierce and (mostly) single-minded ex-governor general Augusta is a force to be reckoned with, and she sets the production’s tone very high with her first entrance. Belinda Giblin’s batty globe-trotting Olympia, with her obscenity-filtering hearing aid and penchant for the gastronomical delights of the critically endangered, is as colourful as she is eccentric, and provides a sometimes off-kilter counterweight to Dence’s Augusta; in many respects, Dence and Giblin seem like the perfect Ab Fab-esque double act, deliciously skewering climate change denialists in the process. Olivia Rose’s Basra is initially a voice of reason amongst the single-minded ideological whack-jobs, but we soon begin to see her for the scared agoraphobe she might actually be. Catherine Davies’ Visi comically offsets the hard-wired obstinacy with a dry wit and sharp tongue, while her character’s twist is gloriously played. Julian Garner’s charlatan Jeff is an idealistic futurist who, like so many of the others, is only really in it for himself and what he can get out of it. Garner, like all of them, hams it up deliciously but it never detracts from Carleton’s script or Edwards’ production but only enhances and amplifies it.
In many ways, this Elephant feels like it wants to burst out of Griffin’s tiny one-hundred seat theatre and explode onto a larger stage; rather than being a detraction, this actually works to play’s and production’s credit, in that it should be seen, heard, and confronted by as many people as possible. It’s a clarion call to action, a reaction to the ennui emanating from our political quagmire, an Absurdist outpouring of the exasperation surrounding every kind of denial the people in charge seem to peddle on a twice-daily basis. Citing worsening bushfires, droughts, storm-cells and temperatures, Carleton says “rather than galvanising us into action, we just seem to do more and more nothing. We do nothing on a grander and grander scale.” So why not make theatre about this on a scale to match and see what happens?
With a healthy indebtedness to Ionesco (Rhinoceroses are back on the menu, I think) and the late Dario Fo’s anarchic political farces, Carleton’s play is gifted with a sharp tongue and an ear for the barbed one-liner. Liberally peppered with puns and nods to everything from Fo to Monty Python, The Goons, and War of the Worlds, Carleton sucks us into this world of decadence, privilege, and moral blindness and then twists his knife a couple of times to make sure it’s well and truly skewered. There’s always a danger with zeitgeisty issues-based theatre that the necessary drama and humanness will get bogged down in scientific detail or technical jargon, and this is perhaps why it is so hard to get it right, why so many topical plays ultimately fall short of their mark. But both Ian Meadows and Stephen Carleton have done their research and homework, and it shows: where Between Two Waves used hard facts and emotion to gain its impact, Carleton’s Elephant uses farce and a sense of humour like a blowtorch to hit its targets, and has a huge amount of fun doing so, and to great effect.
While there were a few opening night stutters on lines, and the play’s pacing has yet to fully hit its sweet spot, come the end of November, this production will be singing and rampaging about the tiny Griffin stage like an elephant in a china-shop. The outside world might be destroying itself in a powder-keg of over-reaching ambition and collective idiocy, but this is one of the most pertinent and audacious (new) plays you could see this year, and certainly one of the most outrageous nights you’ll have at the theatre. Do yourself a favour and catch it, before it becomes the stuff of legend.

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