If you are planning on watching this production, created in lockdown, I feel duty-bound to tell you that there are prolonged descriptions of animal cruelty and torture which may be distressing for some.
With this in mind, the play of Elephant’s Graveyard – not to be confused with the Scottish tale of the same name which appeared in the Play for Today television run – needs to be examined as to how it depicts the true events in Erwin, Tennessee, in 1916.
The circus came to town: a full spectacle then of strongmen, clowns, and a parade of elephants, led by twenty-year old Mary. Expensive animals who have been with the circus all their lives, bred to do tricks and the heavy lifting as the Big Top is set up.
Erwin is buzzing. Children, women, working men all waiting for that piece of escapism. The way this is filmed largely has one character at a time, reflecting on what happened and often contradicting each other.
The film, directed by Colin Blumenau, is saturated in a process which makes it appear beige and remote, like those old photos you sometimes see from a century ago, with people in strained poses due to the length of exposure. The language, too, a little of its time.
In the two key scenes, thankfully telling us of the events, not showing – a new face in town meets a catastrophic end due to his lack of experience and unthinking actions. Mary, the grandest of them all, turns killer and although “the circus has its own court”, Erwin has been through some hard times, and the town sees a chance to offer a form of sacrificial justice to ease its fortunes.
With echoes of the 1943 lynching film The Ox-Bow Incident and throwback to Edison’s notorious “snuff” film of 1903, Electrocuting an Elephant (not to be viewed by those of a sensitive disposition), this film gives both circus and townsfolk a chance to explain themselves and their worlds.
“We made the impossible happen”, says one Erwin resident, in a twisted sense of pride. An America to be proud of. And one, as we are sharply reminded at the end, whose trees still hang periodically with a strange and coloured fruit, the bodies of black men lynched just as surely as this proud animal.
You may feel the circus has its own codes to care for its own, but a stark reminder of the power of commerce comes right at the end, and is possibly the saddest of all. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Production Exchange’s decision to adapt George Brant’s play at this juncture is an odd one, although it addresses the complexity of human interaction It does work well within the limits of distancing, and crowd scenes in particular are handled in style, with backdrops and music to put us in the moment.
It pulls back, though, from the more horrific noises which surely accompanied the protacted death of Mary, and her clumsy slaughter of the proud man who elected to ride her in the parade. I don’t want to hear them, as the words are disturbing enough, but I did wonder about this stylistic choice.
I would like to commend the acting of Esmee Cook (Clown), Shaun Blaney (Marshall), Philippa Hogg (Trainer), and editor Phil Sealey (Steamshovel Operator) in particular in a strong and committed cast.
Elephant’s Graveyard is available to purchase on demand for £10 until 19 September. For tickets visit http://www.tpetv.com/.
LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to review Elephant’s Graveyard.