Magnificent Sacred Elephant: Jeremy Crutchley brings Heathcote Williams’ epic poem to life at the Intimate Theatre

Poster from: Jeremy Crutchley's website (link below)

I’m sure that one-person plays must be particularly challenging for an actor.

The success – or failure – of the entire performance rests solely on your shoulders. No one helps you to weave that spell on your audience, ever-so-gently guiding your viewers to bond with the characters you are portraying onstage. It is solely up to you and your skill and experience as a performer to create and bring to life a shared world in your collective imagination and to take both of you on an emotional journey through that world.

It must be so demanding to be perfect every night: not only to remember all your lines, in the correct sequence, but to re-create all the emotional experiences so convincingly that it seems to be the first time you are experiencing and portraying them.

After all, we can’t always be in top form. Sometimes, life throws us a curveball, we hear bad news, we receive negative criticism, and promptly we feel less than perfect, we doubt our abilities, and we temporarily lose our sense of balance.

Magnificent elephant at the Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia, which we visited in Dec 2010

In a one-man play, there is no one else on stage to share the weight and to re-establish that balance and to help you create that mutually uplifting symbiotic relationship, where the audience can sense the electricity that bounces back and forth between two or more actors on the stage. When it’s just you on that stage, it is solely up to you to establish that dynamic interplay with the play and the audience.

One actor who indisputably has both the ability and the experience to weave such a spell on his audience all on his own is Jeremy Crutchley.

Elephant suddenly appearing next to the jeep

In every live performance of his that I have seen over the years, he has that unmistakeable magical spark, which propels audiences to their feet at the end of each performance to give a standing ovation in a spontaneous outpouring of appreciation and admiration.

I had not seen Jeremy on stage since his award-winning performance, in 2009, in that extraordinary one-(wo)man show I Am My Own Wife, which dramatises the life history of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a famous German transvestite who lived in Berlin during the 20th century. I’d gone to see the play three times – and I could easily have gone to see it many more times than that.

A frightening mock-charge

So when I saw that Jeremy would be performing Heathcote Williams‘ polemical poem Sacred Elephant, I did not wait long before booking two sets of tickets.

Yep, I was definitely going to see this play twice, and I could easily have gone again!

And thus, in celebration of Valentine’s Day 2012, and again a few days later, we found ourselves glued to our seats in the aptly named Intimate Theatre, which is situated on the University of Cape Town’s Hiddingh Hall campus.

"Keep your distance!"

I’m sure that both of these performances were sold out; I could not see any empty chairs in the auditorium. The play had a short run of only about 2 weeks in February, but judging from the audience’s response and the positive reviews (see below for a list of articles), I think it could easily have run for longer! In fact, they did add on a further performance on the Sunday, which I am sure was sold out too.

Heathcote Williams is an English actor, poet, playwright, and somewhat eccentric recluse, who wrote a sequence of exquisitely beautiful and compelling epic poems on environmental issues he felt passionate about, and which he researched in much detail: Whale Nation (1988), Sacred Elephant (1989), Falling for a Dolphin (1990), and Autogeddon (1991).

Standing her ground

The text of Sacred Elephant is fiendishly complex and richly nuanced, and Jeremy must honestly have the proverbial memory of an elephant to remember it all! There is no intermission to break the spell of this 70-minute performance, or to allow him to catch his breath and refocus. Purely from a technical perspective, it was an extraordinary accomplishment.

As the pre-show darkness began to lift, signalling the start of the performance, a strange-looking figure stepped out of the shadows into a circle of soft light.

Photo from: Jeremy Crutchley's website (link below)

He was wrapped in a loose-fitting grey coat whose wrinkled texture echoed an elephant’s skin. The coat’s flaps were slowly flicking back and forth, resembling the ears of an elephant. A long plaited tail was pinned to the back of his neck, while his face was coated in a pale chalky dust like an elephant who had just indulged in a thorough dust bath; his eyes were outlined in an eerie red.

Allowing the soul of Elephant to flow into him and to become embodied by him, he flawlessly – and without a hint of irony or self-consciousness – imitated their movements, the flapping of their ears, the sinuous motion of their trunk, and that unique blend of ponderous solidity and almost airy weightlessnes of their gait.

Relaxed, but keeping a watchful eye on us

The soles of his bare feet seemed to be testing the texture and solidity of the ground, and to sense the presence of small animals, before he transferred his weight onto them. Ever so slowly, step by thoughtful considered step, he moved around the illuminated circumference of the stage.

The stage was almost bare, with a rough hessian cloth covering the floor and the back wall. The only props were three wooden boxes, which Jeremy sat on or leaned against from time to time. Once, he arranged these boxes in a two-tiered pile, ontop of which he sat regally, as though astride an elephant, thundering into battle – harnessing their sheer size and strength to prevail in a battle that, regrettably, resulted in the death of countless of their own species.

Then he spoke the first lines of the poem:

“The shape of an African elephant’s ear is the shape of Africa,
The shape of an Indian elephant’s ear is the shape of India,
As if nature had kept an ear to the ground when listening to the elephants’ territorial requests.”

Elephant foraging in Erindi Private Game Reserve, Namibia

And from there, he took us on a sweeping rollercoaster ride all the way back through our ancient past, drawing on culture, religion and mythology to trace the history of the elephant from those long-ago but not forgotten days when they were revered by ancient civilisations as symbols of wisdom, famed for their memory and intelligence, and endowed with the power to protect and to remove obstacles, all the way into the present.

I struggle to comprehend how and why this profound respect and admiration has been turned upside down to bring about the situation that prevails in the 21st century.

Photo from: Jeremy Crutchley's website (link below)

These huge creatures, so much more powerful and sensitive than humans, have been hunted for ‘sports’ as ‘big game’; they have been – and are still being, right across the African continent – slaughtered for their ivory to feed human greed; they have been confined to circuses, where they are trained to perform, on cue, in a nauseating parody of their natural behaviours; and they have been imprisoned in zoos, ostensibly for purposes of research and education.

It was impossible not to feel moved, and indeed sickened, during the relentless listing of items into which elephants and their various parts have been refashioned.

It stirred a sense of collective guilt and shame at how human beings have treated these magnificent creatures over the centuries – a sad indictment of our race and a sobering reminder of how much damage we have caused to the natural world.

An unforgettable experience: Walking trunk-in-hand with Jabu at the Elephant Sanctuary in The Crags (which we visited in May 2008)

He described how elephants are part of huge and cohesive family units, with the different members of the group able to sense each other many miles away. Their trunks are both extremely sensitive and astoundingly powerful. They have no natural predators, except for humans of course, and can reach an age of 80 years (more detail can be found in an informative article in the Wikipedia).

I still remember vividly how it felt to walk ‘trunk in hand’ with Jabu, one of the elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary in The Crags, which I wrote about here and in my book.

It had been an unforgettable and humbling experience to stand next to her, and to feel her pushing her trunk firmly into my hand, as we walked across a field.

Feeding the elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary in The Crags, Southern Cape

If they chose to, they could so easily trample us underfoot, or crush us against a wall or a fence with their massive bodies, or wrap their powerful trunk around us and squeeze the life out of us, or stampede a car filled with oohing-and-aaahing tourists that are all pointing cameras at them!

And yet, most of the time, inexplicably, they don’t.

They don’t, even though they must surely recognise us as representatives of the same species that ruthlessly hunted down members of their family, their clan, their entire species in order to saw off or brutally extract their ivory tusks.

Walking trunk-in-hand with Jabu

And yet, instead of seeing us instinctively as a threat, and reacting aggressively to protect their loved ones and their territories, they allow us to share their space, even sometimes to walk among them, touching and stroking and caressing them.

Are they teaching us that wisdom lies in coupling great power and strength with gentleness and compassion towards the weak? Are they asking us to remember that other species too have a right to exist on this planet, and that we do not have the right to colonise every available piece of the earth, nor to extract every last resource from it to satisfy our own human greed?

The performance ended with Jeremy symbolically casting off the elephant’s skin by dropping his coat on the ground, leaving it lying in a heap in a kind of symbolic re-enactment of death, of leaving behind one’s mortal body.

Photo from: Jeremy Crutchley's website

We were stunned into silence by the sheer power of his performance, as we stumbled out into the warm air of another late summer evening in the Mother City.

It had been a heart-breaking, beautifully told narrative, which made us squirm in our seats with an uncomfortable sense of recognition, wipe away tears of loss and grief, and smile at the brief instances of comic relief and absurdity. Every word, every gesture, every facial expression was perfectly timed and delivered.

Jeremy, together with Director Geoffrey Hyland (associate professor in the UCT Drama Department), Luke Ellenbogen (lighting) and Illke Louw (costumes), had done a superlative job in bringing this difficult poem to life on the South African stage. After all the work that must have gone into this production, I hope that the play will return for another run, hopefully here in Cape Town – and if it does, do not hesitate too long to reserve your tickets! I know I won’t!

Other articles about Sacred Elephant:

27 thoughts on “Magnificent Sacred Elephant: Jeremy Crutchley brings Heathcote Williams’ epic poem to life at the Intimate Theatre

      • No, I live in Victoria, Texas. I wish I could see it!! I think I have followed you for awhile now, but I don’t get through my notices easily. Thank you for the description of the play. It was almost like being there. You write so well. I thought you were a man until I read further. I am an old lady…not an old man! 🙂

      • Ah, I was wondering where you were based, George. And I too at first thought you were a man, so that is a very funny coincidence! Thank you for your kind comment, and welcome to my blog! 🙂

    • You’re welcome, Alison, I am glad you enjoyed reading it, and I hope you’ll have an opportunity to see the play – if there is another run. It’s been a long time since I blogged, and I have quite a backlog of tales to tell, what with our recent Trip to America! 😉

  1. Super post, Reggie! And I write as one who can (1) never tire of elephant watching and who has (2) performed one-man storytelling shows himself.

    The latter does require great energy and concentration, but there is the advantage that a solo performer is totally in control of his own destiny. He doesn’t need to respond to a fellow performer’s changed nuance in line delivery, or line drop, or forgetting-to-make-an-entrance-with-the-vital-prop. (I’ve been on the receiving end of blunders in plays and dumped my fellow actors in the excrement too of course.)

    As a solo performer, you miss a beat, you solve it yourself. You broke it, you fix it. That’s a bit scary, but also liberating.

    Jeremy Crutchley sounds terrific and I’ll look out for him if he ever comes to a theatre near me. Thanks for bringing him to my attention!

  2. This is a lovely review, Reggie. You wrote so beautifully about this play that it felt like I was there in the audience. It felt like he became the soul of the elephant and shared it with the audience. Would love to see any play featuring him. Thank you.

    • Thank you very much for your kind words, dear Kathy. 🙂 I know you would’ve loved to be here for the performance, and I really hope you will have a chance to see him ‘live’ one day.

  3. Reggie, your elephant images added so much to your review of the play. They’re so beautiful.
    It’s been a few years since I read ‘the White Bone.’ a Canadian novel about endangered African elephants. They are marvelous creatures that could no doubt teach us humans a thing or two about kindness and concern for others.

    We seem to think that we’re the most sensitive animals on the planet. What if we’re not?!?

  4. The photos from the performance look stunning! And those opening lines are absolutely captivating! I adore elephants, I know I would have been truly moved by the sounds of it!

    The show ‘The Last Cuckoo’ that I wrote the song for in 2010 was almost a one man show (bar a mute girl who comes onto the stage at several key moments). The actor Paul Copley was on stage a staggering 120 minutes without an interval! He told me he had a photographic memory – there’s just absolutely NO WAY I could learn a script of that length in the short space of time that he did! It was the most amazing experience to be involved with.


    • I remember you telling us about ‘The Last Cuckoo’, Al; it must have been the most incredible moment to hear YOUR song being sung on stage! Some people are lucky to have such excellent memories, I always wonder how they do it.

  5. An amazing degree of details in your comments. I felt as I was there and indeed am going to see how to use the play ( getting a script and text ) et cetera to use in my clinical work. WHAT a dynamic examination of elephants, fellow souls on the universe of life, so touching to see the write up! Thanks Reggie we are all missing you beyond in KY. Keep writing!

    • Thank you, Lisa. I wonder whether he is going to perform Sacred Elephant again sometime. The run at the Intimate Theatre was only for two weeks – but so much work must’ve gone into it that it seems a pity to me if they don’t perform it again. If they do, I wonder whether it’ll be in Cape Town or somewhere else? Do you have a theatre/playhouse near you in George, Lisa? Where is your nearest nice venue for play performances?

  6. Pingback: Sacred Elephant is coming to New York City in September 2013! | Grains of Sand

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