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16th September 2001

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Trumpet blasts of the traumatized

"The Last Elephant" written and directed by Michael de Soyza. Reviewed by Wijith DeChickera

The Last Elephant", which went on the boards at the Lionel Wendt, September 6-10 made perfect sense to those who are passionate about this endangered species. To the un-enchanted masses, there were lucid intervals in which we seemed to understand. The ignorant and the apathetic benefited nothing: they walked in and walked out, neither knowing nor caring about the plight of the great pachyderm.

Here lay the tragedy in this production of another original script. The passion of the author washed like a tidal wave over the heads of the audience, drowning the zealous, the converted and the apostate alike in a sea of rhetoric. A cause can be a dangerous thing.

More's the pity. Here is a burning national issue that involves a fragment of the populace and virtually the entire elephant population. Yet it interests but a few, often engaging the public conscience by default: through shock, shame, anger, ignorance and indifference. Powerful stuff for the stage. De Soyza made best use of it when he let the narrative tell its own tale. When the story skimmed perilously close to his own experience, it threatened to castrate the urgency. Diatribes can be deadly, achieving the opposite from that which they set out to effect.

Michael is a man who does his utmost away from the spotlight to champion the dying cause of Elephas maximas. In the glare of the footlights, Jude, his alter ego, seemed curiously ambivalent. At times impetuous about the fate of the beast he both knows and likes, at others vehement in asserting the rights of the elephant's nemesis, humankind. Fiery though he may be, the playwright is fair - and that may be his undoing, at least as far as convincing the audience was concerned.

It is reasonable to assume that convincing the audience into a like-minded state was the writer's intention. If not, there is no forgivable rationale for the extensively didactic script. We were there to be informed, instructed, educated. That the play did it entertainingly is to the credit of the thinking mind behind the text and the feeling heart in the players' performance. The traditional drum rhythms, the hypnotic jungle chants and the engrossingly choreographed dances of death added the requisite elements of theatre to an offering that was otherwise in danger of reducing to a wildlife lover's Imageirrelevant reverie.

Jude (the patron of lost causes?) led us poignantly from an elephant-less future into a terrifying elephant-dominated past. The 'enthusiasts' on safari, the expert 'expedition' and the dilemma of a village traumatized by the marauding beast open up and explore the many aspects of a truly mammoth problem. One learns about elephantine habits, habitats, myths, anatomy, history, pageantry. Facts and fallacies are laid bare; but in an effort to tell both sides of the issue in the human-elephant conflict, an essential is omitted: the denouement to the crisis.

Realistically speaking, a satisfactory end is not necessary, for the struggle between Man and Nature continues with no resolution imminent. Yet, from the standpoint of theatre, something more tangible than a reluctant elephant-lover tortured by inner demons is needed - or else the play descends to self-indulgence. Anathema though it may be to Michael to reach a conclusion, artists are licensed in a free society to be engineers of the soul - and this writer for one would have welcomed a more definitive climax.

Having said that, it behoves an impartial response to recognize talent, hard work and the courage of one's convictions - if it is possible to praise without being patronizing. First, the spring of original writing that continues to well is truly refreshing to thespians. Second, the commitment shown by this youthful, aspiring, dynamic group of players is most inspiring. Third, the ability and willingness to tackle pressing issues in tandem with personal beliefs is highly commendable.

On an idiosyncratic note, it is possible to admire the pragmatism of a realistic set and congratulate on effective use of light, sound, props and costumes while questioning the naturalism that pervaded the production and threatened to lull some players into undisciplined acting. More thought could have been given to posture, gesture and delivery, particularly as the script was maturely and responsibly worked with no resort to flamboyance and histrionics. The sharp focus on realism, the penchant to underplay and the judicious avoidance of romantic attitudes to real life issues worked well to counterpoint the sporadic and senseless violence, underscore the gut-wrenching reality of the problem. The multilingual approach, so artificially fashioned in recent times by the media in advertising, was here carefully crafted to reflect the integral nature of everyday communication. However, it did not quite convince that it is possible, indeed permissible, to adequately convey ideas, thoughts and feelings over a sustained period (the bilingual exchanges were too long for expatriate members of the audience). A cruel irony lingers. In a play so evidently eco-sensitive and self-conscious to the point of obsession, was it conscionable to have sundry characters smoking on and off? There may have been a point to it, but was it worth the dichotomy to have nature lovers pollute the environment, perversely under the No Smoking sign? Whether or not the elephant will be saved from humans by this play, perhaps it is time to save the smoker from himself.

Rules of the library

By Fuzzy

Now, I consider myself a connoisseur of li- braries. Well, at least I used to. Having been a member of half a dozen simultaneously, I fancied that I'd be able to find my way blindfolded in any building marked 'library', whether in the farthest corner of Siberia, or, well, in Sydney, Australia. Libraries are (okay, were) to me what the Galapagos Islands were to Darwin; the place I knew best.

So when on that fine morning my aunt pointed up at a massive building rising above the organized chaos of Sydney, little did I realize that I was in for a colossal shock. "That is your library - that building with the four initials of your University on the four sides. If you get lost, look for that," she Imageadvised.

Only half listening to her, I took snug pleasure in the picture it called to mind. A dark, hushed room, with shelves of veneered volumes sitting in sombre comfort, most of them undisturbed by humanity for at least 10 years, waiting for my awed touch to spring to life. It was a good feeling, because for the first time since my arrival in Sydney I was about to tread familiar grounds - a library.

Once at the university, having made sure I remember enough road directions to not get lost - a well-founded fear - my aunt left. With one hour to go for my very first lecture, like the esteemed compass that always turns to the north, I turned towards the direction of the library.

As I mount the steps to the hallowed building, my glance falls on large lettered notices posted outside. "Library Tours", says one. "Library Workshops - How To Use Library Resources" says another. Since when did libraries fall in the category of National Parks, and what self-respecting individual would need workshops to figure out how to find a book? Shaking my head at the follies of academia, I wander in through the doors.

But am I in the right place? It's a brightly lit, large room with a bewildering amount of name boards hung from the roof pointing this way and that, a few desks sporting an unhealthy number of leaflets in various colours, and an equally disquieting number of computers sitting on long desks. And no books. Not a single object that even remotely resembles a book. But more than half the name boards hanging from the roof have the word library printed on them. There certainly is something sinister going on here.

After standing and staring for half a minute, I decide to venture towards one of the tables holding the said leaflets. This is my second day at the university and I have already developed a deep phobia for leaflets. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes and sit menacingly in every room you step into at the university. By virtue of being a new student (it is easy to recognize and interpret the open mouth and the befuddled stare) you are obliged to pick a handful wherever you go. If you don't, a smiling stranger with an unfathomable accent thrusts a whole heap of the coloured menace on you. Of course they are meant to be helpful. But as someone said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and these leaflets show the way to the aforementioned destination for new students. When you feel like a Borneo Indian lost in a Martian jungle, the last thing you have the presence of mind to do is scan heaps of instruction manuals saying things like, 'Arriving, Surviving and Thriving in Sydney' or 'How To Stay Awake During Lectures'.

So I gingerly pick up a few leaflets, which are as usual Greek to me. However one of them is a map, and it sheds some light on the mystery. I certainly am in the library, only this is the Reception. The library proper starting from the next floor climbs upwards into seven more floors. Annoyed at myself for panicking so easily, I shove the rest of the leaflets in my bag and climb up.

Okay, now am I in the right place? Am I? Am I? Seems to me I'm not. Sure there are shelves and shelves full of objects which do look like books but where's the dim ambience of sanctified things? Where is the fragrance of sublime thoughts wafting out from among the pages? The room I'm in is vast, brightly lit, odourless, cold and clinical. How can this be my home away from home for the next three years? I can hardly imagine spending quiet afternoons absorbing the redeeming life philosophy of Keats or Frost here, in this place resembling a piece of new age architecture more suited for exhibition than anything else. Horrified, I feel the sense of 'familiar ground' slipping from underneath my feet once again, for about the hundredth time since arriving here.

With drooping shoulders I wonder what to do next. Fine, I tell myself, so it doesn't have atmosphere but it still has books, doesn't it? This shred of hope propels me towards the shelves. At least they are still books, and not some wonder of modern technology devised to reduce the hassle of 'reading'. I finger the spine of a book to see which letter of the alphabet I am at so that I can find a familiar volume to calm my nerves, but all I can find is an undecipherable code which totally baffles me. Panicking, I look at some more books and then some more and then at the next shelf. They all hold the mysterious code which I'm sure would flummox even the librarian. Obviously, knowing the alphabet back to front wasn't going to help in this library.

Miserably, I plonk at a desk nearby and pull out the dreaded leaflets I shoved out of sight. They stare at me reproachfully with titles like, "Helpful Hints for Finding a Book" and "Prefixes Used In The Library". The latter is an endless list of the mysterious codes I found on the books. Apparently I have other things to study than just lecture notes. As my equally flabbergasted newfound friend remarked yesterday, it sure does seem as if you need a degree just to find your way around here. Wondering why it never occurred to anyone to produce a leaflet with instructions on "How To Avoid The Library During A Three Year Degree" I decide to go back to the reception. So, er, those library tours and workshops are there for a purpose, aren't they?

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