In 1903, Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy the elephant, convicted for having lost herself to fits of rage and killing three men on Coney Island, one of them her abusive trainer. Once a living spectacle of Luna Park, she was doomed to die a spectacle also. The event was filmed by Edison, and for those so inclined, can be watched thanks to the wonder of the internet.
When Kit Lazaroo discovered the story of Topsy, she broke her personal pact to never write about American themes, characters or places; the power of Topsy’s story over-rode Lazaroo’s distaste for imitative American writing. Setting the performance at the time of execution on Coney Island, she places the characters within this strange world as outsiders, allowing natural accents, and so creating the world of the play as distinct from restrictions of culture. This allows a freedom which well facilitates the performance’s narrative.
The play inspires strong feelings of ambiguity, perhaps produced by its lack of coherence. Each of the four characters has an existential crisis, however they’re so clearly drawn that their performances feel like competing aspects of the show, rather than parts of a whole. They’re all chasing after something, and frustratingly, none of them finally seize it.
Clothilde, played by Carole Patullo, is a powerful force within the show. She is the human equivalent of Topsy the elephant, a murderess, who poses the question – can there be forgiveness, when the act was provoked, perhaps even fair? The other characters surround Clothhilde, each with an interest in the fate of the elephant, who awaits impending execution.
Grenitch, played by Colin James, is seeking redemption. Bruna, the pompous writer and journalist, performed by Georgina Capper, is on the trail to write the best story about the electrocution, and is more interested in documenting the gory details of Topsy’s suffering than relieving it. Lastly, the enigmatic Vasco, Topsy’s keeper and final friend, emphasises the mysterious undercurrent of the performance.
Whilst each character is drawn with depth, the performances glide over the surface. The acting style is heightened, but not for any apparent purpose, and so hinders the actors fully inhabiting their characters. The script may suit a non-natural performance style, but it is not achieved overall, and we are left with a hybrid creation.
The space in fortyfivedownstairs adds its own fantastically eerie timbre to the play. Major aspects of the set, while attractive, are not built into the performance, serving only aesthetic and symbolic purposes, which would have been more effective if incorporated into the action. Shadow screens are utilised, yet as so often happens, they are there for the sake of adding an extra stagecraft, and are not mastered in use.
The most alienating aspect of this performance was a lack of competency with the script. The moment lines are stumbled over, the focus and involvement is lost, and at this level you expect that the actors have either mastered their specific lines or the ability to improvise within their character to maintain the intensity.
I left feeling underwhelmed, without the feeling of a resolution, even though the action of the play sought one. The characters seemed uncomprehending of their own conclusions, driven by the plot of the script rather than by their motivations. When a performance focuses so heavily on the characters, their words and stories and motivations, these must be convincingly reigned by the actors, because there is nothing to fall back on. We’re there, we’re close, and as to be expected, we’re watching, so the connection and focus must be maintained by the performance if we are to be satisfied. Actors who feel uncertain with their lines and uncomfortable facing the audience let down a script which had potential.
Here Theatre and fortyfivedownstairs present
by Kit Lazaroo
Directed by Jane Woollard
Venue: Fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 1 - 11 July 2010
Times: Wed - Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: $29 Full, $24 Concession and $20 Preview
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 | www.fortyfivedownstairs.com