Once you accept that it’s all nonsense, that your senses will be assaulted by a riot of colour and noise, by a roomful of people speaking, shouting, singing and whistling – while wearing big floppy ears and cartoon hands – then you’ll enjoy Elephant Steps.
Premiered 50 years ago at the Tanglewood Festival, it was written by avant-garde theatre pioneer Richard Foreman and blue-chip contemporary composer Stanley Silverman, a former assistant to French composer Pierre Boulez. Director Patrick Kennedy, an enthusiast of this duo’s work, staged the European premiere in the tiny Arcola Theatre with much ingenuity and an accomplished cast of singers and instrumentalists.
Silverman was no hardcore modernist: he loved cabaret, showbiz, 60s rock, and the score of Elephant Steps is like twiddling the dial of a radio – the songs switch from 12-tone to madrigals to Motown via rock numbers that sound like Hair or Godspell. The singers have to find their inner Janis, Tallis or Boulez, capering around the confined stage in Summer of Love miniskirts or aviator shades, singing into microphones, broom handles or cucumbers.
Yes, surreal – and sometimes infuriating – but it is held together by the chugging energy of the band on a platform above the action. Captions projected above the stage suggest a plot – then events veer off into an even more whacky area.
Jake Stevenson as a bass-heavy Hartman is the pivot, lying in bed as fantastical characters parade around him. There is a standout ragtime song from Elissa Churchill, described as Scrubwoman/Ragtime Lady, who does suggestive things with her hips and broom, and a convincing portrayal of a sinister rock icon by Blair Robertson as Max.
Kennedy’s decision to set the ‘opera’ (which has no stage directions) in 1968, might feel dated, but the atmosphere of confusion and paranoia certainly mirrors today’s crazy, fragmented news cycle.