I went to see Elephant at Bush Theatre. There are no content or trigger warnings.
The performance is in the Studio space with seating on 3 sides of the static set. The character of Lylah comes on and plays the piano, but also climbs on it, sprawls on it, and crawls underneath it and the seat. The screen on the left is lit up some time to indicate a live performance or social event is occurring in the narrative; on the right hand side the years in which the events are occurring are flashed up. The soundtrack is a mixture of live performance and some recorded interludes. There are also other voices played from the sides.
The timeline jumps forward and back across the years from 1996 to 2018. Lylah’s childhood was spent growing up in a council flat. “When you tell people you live in a council flat, they think you mean you live on an estate” is the first of many times she points out the significance of various terms and markers in her experience of having a mixed racial background and getting a scholarship to Lycee Francais in west London, and so meeting many different girls who have many different expectations and assumptions about what “normal” homes are like.
The monologue begins as a description of the piano and how it generates sound, and Lylah switches back to didactic style when explaining other things she learned as an obedient academically serious child – all the different words used for rooms in the home in different languages, and how none of them seem to be fitting for her own home. She was good at modern languages (Oxford degree) but her real love was music and modern jazz, but her career has been stalling. At the same time she discovered that record companies are mainly interested in presenting her as a particular human interest story, and cutting her work to fit it. She also gets in a relationship with a very comfortably-off session musician, who of course turns out to have a much wealthier family background than he let on
Over the years there is a building sense of the role that Empire and plunder has played in the lives of the families of the very well off white boys who seem to dominate the music business, and that there is no way to simply “forget about race” when it is always an implicit divider and classifier in their eyes.
The printed script indicates that a pool of blood should be seen emerging from underneath the piano, which would fit with Lylah’s description of the violence involved in extracting the ivory used in the most valued examples. As this was the first night that may have been dropped.
This was very good, reminiscent of Arinze Kene’s Misty from 2018, although that had the larger stage and used more effects.
The American music industry has always been manipulating all the exciting new styles and movements available to it, and jazz got the treatment right from the start. The picture in the banner is from the restoration of the 1930 film King Of Jazz, which focuses on a bandleader called Paul Whiteman. As New York Times noted:
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