The Elephant Song at the Park Theatre – review
Jason Moore's UK premiere production runs until 11 February
Though it's now 20 years since its premiere, this intriguing three-hander by Canadian writer Nicolas Billon still feels contemporary as a study of psychiatry, sexuality and the long tail of childhood trauma.
It's set in a consulting room, where Dr Greenberg (Jon Osbaldeston) is trying to ascertain the whereabouts of his colleague Dr Lawrence. The crucial information lies with Michael (Gwithian Evans), a troubled young man who is also expert at playing mindgames. Greenberg's approach is forceful – he crosses so many ethical lines with Michael that one quickly loses count. As the latter quips, "I'm the patient and you're the impatient".
A much more human approach is taken by Nurse Peterson (Louise Faulkner), who pops in and out at the behest of Greenberg. When left alone with Michael, she's able to make him laugh and show him tenderness, something too few adults have done in his life. We learn his obsession with elephants stems from a childhood safari with his estranged father, when he witnessed him kill one at close range. Meanwhile his mother chose her opera career over him, and ultimately committed suicide in front of him. It's hardly a surprise his life has led him here.
Michael is a gift of a role, and Evans really excels with it, lending him a menace and vulnerability that is reminiscent of Hamlet. He gleefully manipulates Greenberg while clutching his toy elephant for comfort. His accusation of sexual abuse by Dr Lawrence is done almost flirtatiously, but with full knowledge of the implications.
Osbaldeston is a fine foil as Greenberg, capturing his deep frustration at being outsmarted by a sectioned 23-year-old. Though it should be said that his aforementioned impatience (exacerbated by the fact this is all happening on Christmas Eve) stretches credibility at times. Would even the most mendacious of clinicians really refer to a patient as "a little sh*t"?
As the nurse, Evans brings a welcome sensitivity to proceedings. The final twist hinges on Greenberg's failure to read something in Michael's notes, something his oft-derided nurse quickly realises. This is one of Billon's key themes – how hierarchical institutions can ignore talent and ultimately betray the people they are meant to help.
Jason Moore's production is faithful without being stuffy, and it's beautifully paced. The design by Ian Nicholas evokes a slightly pretentious consulting room – Rothko prints on the walls, antique furniture – that seems just right for a man of Greenberg's pride.
At 70 minutes, this is a brisk and intriguing glimpse into the troubled life of someone born into apparent privilege. Its central motif of elephants, famed for their intelligence and vulnerability to human mistreatment, is highly apt.