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November 16, 2009 | by  | in Arts Theatre | [ssba]

Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants


The nature of ‘devised’ work means that it is bound to strike debate. Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants invites this further with an intriguing, if vague, viral marketing campaign aimed at piquing interest without really giving much clue as to what is going on. A murder? A break-up? A Wellington answer to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros? All we know going in is that this will definitely not pan out the way we think it will.

Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants is a challenge to the search for and creation of meaning. We follow a set of loosely connected people drifting through a loosely connected series of events. The world is hazy and surreal; a man is lost in endless corridors of office space, characters are viewed through smoky set pieces and dark shadows lurk in the wings. Our protagonist is soon given the vague and ultimately meaningless goal of finding the focal point of time, space and infinity. If this sounds a bit like Stephen King’s The Dark Tower cycle to anyone else, I would certainly be inclined to agree with them.

Death and the Dreamlife of ElephantsYet unlike The Dark Tower and more like the sliding rails and billowing plastic sheets which comprise the dynamic and creative set, Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants floats in a kind of surreal nothing-space with only a small amount of context for the audience to root its understanding in. Where The Dark Tower will quote T.S. Elliot and The Rolling Stones, this is devoid of any citation or pointers which may guide our understanding other than a few references to Wellington and a couple of programme notes. We are ‘cut loose’ from the world as we know it, both figuratively and symbolically, and respond with as much uncertainty about what we are experiencing as the characters before us.

There are some truly monumental performances at hand to help guide us through this tricky and perplexing play. Highlights include two stunning character roles from Harriette Cowan as a slowly fading senior and Aaron Cortesi playing the challenging role of our protagonist Julian’s strange cousin. Our awkward every-man Julian rings true to home as played by Vaughn Slinn and Paul Waggott offers a habitually absorbing performance whilst sucking on a helium balloon.

Yet it is Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants‘ clever aesthetic and striking design which gives this play the credibility and boost it needs to become an accomplished piece. Some incredible interplay is achieved between Tracey Monastra’s dynamic set and director Leo Gene Peter’s unique style of story-telling. Three rows of foggy plastic sheets on sliding frames provide glorious opportunities for silhouettes, movement and framing. Watching the show, it feels like every moment and unit of action has been broken down to its most basic of components, and the grand effect is that one is turning the pages of a beautiful graphic novel. In some cases we are actually watching the story progress frame by frame, a feat which has a dazzling effect.

It may be easy to feel put off by talk about themes of vagueness and uncertainty. The title alone is probably enough to leave most people going wtf? Could anything be more vague and uncertain than dreams and death? Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants‘ only weakness may well be its greatest strength; that it is a show designed and developed for people with a refined taste and thorough understanding of theatre. The textures of the piece are dazzling and the layers are luscious and thick, but this really is a show made for people who appreciate that sort of thing. It’s not pretentious and it isn’t inaccessible, but a good rule of thumb might be that it’s best to take along friends who enjoy the occasional art film more than they enjoyed the latest season of Heroes.

This show is a must-see for any theatre connoisseur. If you are someone who digs creativity, being lost in an acid trip, and/or having a damn good think, then you should make it your business to check this out.

Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants
Created by a slightly isolated dog
Directed by Leo Gene Peters
With Sara Allen, Hannah Banks, Aaron Cortesi, Harriette Cowan, Uther Dean, Louise Lethbridge, Vaughan Slinn and Paul Waggott

At BATS, 10 – 21 Nov 2009, 8pm
Book at or 04 802 4175


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