Opera and musical theatre director Gale Edwards brings her big vision to Griffin's small stage for this award-winning black comedy about climate disaster
Picture it: Australia in the not-so-distant future. Sea water has entered Melbourne’s sewerage system and the city is choking on its own excrement. The Philippines has just suffered a Category 6 typhoon. Greenland’s last permafrost has melted, and the snow is about to disappear – permanently – from Kilimanjaro. Meanwhile, It’s 48 degrees in Sydney, gale force winds are raging, and the Cultural Front for Environmental Conservation have just thrown two buckets of human shit on the head of the Australian delegation at the World Business Summit.
Stephen Carleton’s script for The Turquoise Elephant won the 2015 Griffin Award, and it’s easy to see why: it’s wild ride that also happens to be daringly political – and blackly comedic.
The story opens with the shit-covered Augusta Macquarie – aforementioned summit delegate, and former Governor General – returning home to her hermetically sealed compound on the Harbour (which may or may not have a drawbridge).
Augusta is matriarch of the billionaire Macquarie family, and lives with her sister Olympia (Belinda Giblin) and their left-leaning activist granddaughter Basra (Olivia Rose). Augusta advocates for the increased use of fossil fuels; Olympia is a climate-change-related disaster tourist, and eats only endangered species. Is it any wonder that Visi (Catherine Davies), their new maid, might want to take the family down from the inside?
The play’s Absurdist structure and language, coupled with Gale Edwards’ hyper-stylised direction and Emma Vine’s Effie Trinket-esque costumes, call to mind Eugene Ionesco (Carleton gives him a shout-out in his program notes) and Italian Absurdist Dario Fo (who passed away earlier this month). In intermittent news blasts from a screen on the theatre wall, a ghoulish eco terrorist from the Front (played, in a great cameo role, by iOTA) urges the people to rise up and fight against corporate and governmental inaction.
The play is frequently shocking by design; it’s trying to startle us out of our complacency. A quarter of a century ago, Australia was ready to lead the world in proactive climate change policy – now we lag behind significantly. The Turquoise Elephant punishes inaction and disaster voyeurism and has no time or place in its world for hope. The world is going to burn and it’s going to be our fault.
Carleton’s script is a juggling act of ideas – maybe a few too many ideas (a classic twin-switch gets hardly any stage time as a consequence, and then there’s this whole thing about a lothario tech entrepreneur who wants to build an end-of-days survivalist dome in the desert). But this premiere production has the right director on board: Edwards, who has directed everything from Opera on the Harbour to The Boy From Oz, is the best possible ringmaster for this ambitious piece.
In her hands the play never feels too big for the Griffin space, and Dence and Giblin are a striking double-act of corrupted economic privilege, turning out satisfyingly oversized performances. Sometimes there’s a little too much instability within scenes, as they veer towards realism only to smash back into melodrama; this undercuts the play’s oddball rage. Elsewhere, characters slip into pantomime – and not in a good way.
Still, it’s a new Australian work with a good cast and an important, urgent message, and that might be more important than tonal inconsistency. It’s a rebuke and a challenge and it’s sparking with ideas – all of which are rare on stage these days.