‘Sacred Elephant’ by Heathcote Williams. Adapted for the stage by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley
Sacred Elephant, based on a poem by Heathcote Williams, has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by director Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley. Crutchley also acts the role of The Other, the spiritual ethos of the elephant of the title. The production is currently at La Mama’s First Floor Theatre until September 22. This U.S. premier and all that Crutchley embodies in the role must be seen and witnessed to be believed. It is magnificent.
This is not an easy entertainment, though. In fact it is devastating in the import of the message and experience it offers. However, that is one element of what the poet and artistic creators intend. One cannot walk away untouched by Crutchley’s performance, which awakens our empathy and opens our minds and hearts to the torment of these wonderful creatures.
Through graceful movements and meaningful and magnetic voices and renderings, Crutchley enacts the poem, becoming The Other and invoking its spiritual dimensions. By this very embodiment of the elephant and all it represents throughout history to the current time, he engages our sensibilities, reaching for our spirits to force us to hear, see and feel the beauty of who The Other is as we acknowledge our kinship with him/her/it.
We also experience the soul-sickening malady of our own degradation. We’ve allowed The Other to be maltreated and destroyed for our pleasure, almost like a whimsical afterthought. And no one dares stop us. We do it because we can, harming ourselves in the process. Though we know better, we effect The Other’s and our destruction anyway.
The revelation penetrates like a bullet between the eyes and the question “Why?” hovers in the air as the poet and artistic executioners Hyland and Crutchley tether us to the long chain of abuses society has inflicted upon the elephant in its irrational lust for the “fun of it.” The puzzle of our humanity or lack of humanity deepens. What glory to repeatedly sacrifice, maim and imprison these creatures for the fleeting mood elevations of children and families? Where is the intelligence? Who indeed are the dumb beasts?
Even better, how does their torture relate to those activists at the tail end of consumer culture who would never traffic in ivory or advocate the abuse and poaching of these marvelous creatures? And yet, here we are, watching a stage play of Sacred Elephant for our pleasure, a play showing the misery of The Other. The irony is a cruel one, and I can’t really smile at its darkness, nor forget easily. And that is another thematic point this production makes.
The lighting (Luke Ellenbogen), music, set, sound design and staging (Hyland) are effective assists to Crutchely as is the costuming (Ilka Louw). The frames of light and shadow, the three boxes Crutchley lifts and rearranges and sits upon, the sway of his grey and white dusted flow of costume, all masterfully work with the music of Heathcote’s phrases and word jewels. The spectacle enhances the message of the power of life and the misery of the dissolution we’ve wreaked on The Other.
From historical veneration by ancient cultures to the elephant’s current decline exacted by global “progress,” this production of Sacred Elephant reminds us of how “far” we’ve come and what we’ve sacrificed to get here. It’s a banal evil, all the more rotten for what we’ve allowed, whether directly or unwittingly. Hyland’s and Crutchley’s adaptation shows that we’ve been separated from what is divine, majestic, awe-inspiring and magical in ourselves and The Other. We’ve been alienated from the spirituality of our past and have destroyed our inheritance to face an isolated, loveless future, unknown to ourselves and the creatures that are our kin.
The message is potent. The production delivers. See it to see The Other. It runs until September 22.