The Elephant Vanishes

Complicité, Inspired by the Collection of Short Stories by Haruki Murakami

Barbican

(2003)

Review by Philip Fisher

The writings of Haruki Murakami are not, perhaps the most obvious material for the creation of a play. His Japanese version of magic realism is often exciting but realising it on stage was never going to be easy.

There are very few companies that would have taken on this project and Complicité, under their always-inventive artistic director, Simon McBurney, is one of the few that was likely to succeed.

To make life even harder for themselves, rather than picking on one of the novels, they have chosen Murakami's collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes, with its widely differing themes.

After a rather witty false start, it is made clear to the audience that one of the main issues of the night is unity, in particular of design.

Immediately, we are thrust into a world of quirky Japanese loners. There's the man who is so obsessed with an ancient elephant at his local zoo that he becomes a detective when the elephant and its keeper ,rather than walking off, vanish completely. He gives up the chance of a night of passion with a beautiful journalist due to this obsession. Who wants to spend time with an elephant bore?

Another story is about an happy man who, within two weeks of marriage, suffers from a deep, almost metaphorical hunger. This brings back memories of an armed raid on a Wagner loving baker. It is cheering to find out that the 21st century's equivalent to a baker is now an all-night McDonald's.

Insomnia, not to mention boredom, continues into the last main story, that of a woman who has gone 17 nights without sleep, having met herself in a nightmare.

This theme of repetition, of people seeing themselves from outside runs through the production. Frequently characters are portrayed by more than one actor.

One of the highlights is the flying commentator in the bakery story. This is a man having an out-of-body experience that is extremely affecting. It is enhanced by his ability to turn somersaults in the air and by a childlike, dreamy mix of cartoon images and human beings.

While the subject matter is of great relevance, Complicité's main strength is in the production of a visual and aural collage, designed by Michael Levine and Christopher Shutt respectively. It is constantly interesting, involves clever physical theatre and somehow seeps deep into the unconscious.

At times, this work is reminiscent of a pop video, at others of a video installation, while on rarer occasions the influence of far more traditional theatre can be seen.

For those who love exhilarating physical theatre and anyone with an interest in Japan or a vivid imagination, the appearance of this new play by Complicité will prove a rewarding experience.