Gender the Elephant

Thu 28th – Sat 30th November 2013

reviews

Joseph Cooper

at 01:58 on 29th Nov 2013

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Gender the Elephant is a curiosity; one that I don't quite know what to make of. It is one of those plays which requires you to forget, and immerse yourself in the magic; go in cynical, over-critical, and it is easy to see just a woman on a stage, talking – if you can just let yourself go, be taken away, then it is very easy to get lost in the enchantment of the piece; it is such a mindset I suggest for this performance more than many others.

It was slow in places, with several sequences, including the scene changes, being slightly over-long. Those necessary criticisms aside, it was wonderful. The performance was unflinching, confident, and at times deeply moving and certainly challenging for an audience member. It is a play that makes you think, about many things – the definition of gender, and what defines it, yes, but also an even deeper social challenge; the play is uncomfortable, and yet captivating at the same time (providing that you are willing to let yourself be captivated – I urge you, do).

The use of props, lighting and music is clever and adds an huge amount of power to the piece, not detracting from, but complimenting the acting itself. A second cast member is certainly not missed in the production; the mixture of narration, impression and imagining work to convincingly and artistically portray conversations in an oddly real sense. The use of mime was also put to good use, with many of the smaller gestures getting laughs (although the packing of the bags does go into the aforementioned 'slightly over-long').

The little vulgarity is surprisingly tasteful in its honesty – and the more disturbing elements are implicit. What stands out in the piece is, surprisingly, its realism, with a convincing presentation of a remembered childhood, and the incredibly impressive ability to conjure an imaginary cat across my vision. The pauses in speech and the power of the performance made even the act of lighting a cigarette or the removing of shoes seem to last an inordinate amount of time, leaving the audience, to coin a phrase, hanging upon every word that was said. The jokes were conversational, honestly presented, and most certainly made by their delivery.

I was also incredibly excited to be involved in such a seemingly intimate production; I felt engaged in the performance in a way I yearn to in theatre, making the moment of the turning of the back upon the audience feeling like a personal slight or rejection. The piece has a very complex feel, a mixture of discomfort, easing humour, intellectual challenge and mimetic emotional display. The words 'I'm drowning' seem to be still echoing in my head these some hours later; I haven't for the life of me any certainly how they should be taken.

The ending of Gender the Elephant I will not comment upon too greatly – I have no idea what was going on. Numerous possibilities, many of which seem entirely likely, were impressed upon me at once. The performance is – how shall I put it? – 'open to interpretation'. It seemed to wake me up like a cold shower, immerse me like a good book, and leave me stranded on a curbside in the rain; and, yes, take the latter as a compliment! The play is certainly worth a look at, if nothing else – but preferably a dive in. Sit down with an open a mind as you can, and you will have it filled; mine was, and it doesn't open half as much as I'd like it to.

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Jack May

at 10:45 on 29th Nov 2013

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Whatever else may be said about this production of Bethan Kitchen’s new play Gender the Elephant, the performance given by India Semper-Hughes must be lauded as unavoidably, undeniably, and utterly brilliant.

She manages to completely capture the audience, and cultivate the stage to her own devices for the full hour of the play’s duration – there is never a moment when you tire of seeing one actor on stage, or bore of her monologues, dialogues, addresses, dances, and myriad other interactions with the viewer. At times she delivers her lines at great speed, pulling the audience along with her as the dialogue between her character Bess and her twin brother Bobby grows ever more manic, whilst never seeming to lose track of her viewers, never erring in her steadfast attention to them, and never faltering in energy and believability. Similarly, at more poignant and thoughtful moments, she manages to leave huge spaces between lines without the creation of any unnecessarily uncomfortable atmosphere – long pauses of inestimable length are coloured to feel entirely natural, and slowly delivered lines are followed diligently by a captivated audience.

The script itself, however, cannot be praised in quite such hyperbolic terms. Whilst there are moments when it’s funny, charming, endearing, and poignant, there’s a lot of spare material that seems to bring no great extra colour to the characters, the themes, or the tone of the play as a cohesive whole. As a text written by a writer with self-consciously feminist influences, and as a one-woman show, the absent male character Bobby seems to loom too large – he dominates Bess’s thoughts, and he dominates their conversation in a way that seems too obviously masculine for someone who claims to want to become ‘genderless’. For a play with such a tantalising and enticing title, and with such a powerful concept behind it, there seems to be so much that isn’t there that could be, and, arguably, should be.

It’s also a script that raises many more questions than answers, and not always necessarily in a good way. As you leave the theatre, a plethora of confusions, ambiguities, and bafflements run through your mind, but not necessarily those that you might imagine would be encouraged by a play called ‘Gender the Elephant’. You are left not with questions as to gender roles, stereotypes, the role of gender itself, the meaning of masculinity vs. femininity, or what it means to have a female character and a female actor embodying both her own character and that of her twin, but with seemingly trivial plot questions – what happened here? what was this supposed to mean? was this character real? what was the point of this section?

Fundamentally, it is a show that will in some ways leave most audiences unsatisfied – those looking for a frank engagement with and philosophical disentanglement of gender in its myriad guises will be left disenchanted by a play that provides so many great opportunities at every turn only to scurry away from them, whilst those looking for a satisfying evening at the theatre of good lines, good characters, good narratives, and real soul will also be left high and dry – despite India Semper-Jones’s astounding performance, ‘Gender the Elephant’ doesn’t quite leave me with the post-theatre tingle I love so dearly.

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