If you want to laugh your way into a downward existential spiral about the way humanity has screwed the world, then Griffin Theatre’s The Turquoise Elephant is the play for you.
Climate change seemed to be on everyone’s minds in the lead up to the Paris Conference in 2015, when Stephen Carleton first started work on writing The Turquoise Elephant. And despite the Paris agreement to reduce CO2 emissions, which will start in 2020, little seems to have been done about it— not just at an international, governmental level, but also at an individual level. Climate change’s shocking impacts are increasingly clear — natural disasters, health hazards, devastating increase in poverty and the destruction of beautiful environmental sites — yet it all too easily slips the mind in a world of consumerist distraction; we continue to neglect taking the radical action climate change demands. And Carleton is calling us out on our shit in his new, Griffin-Award winning play.
The Turquoise Elephant paints a ludicrous picture of the concerningly near future: Melbourne has just flooded with human faeces; the temperature is consistently over 400 C; species are becoming extinct daily; islands are flooding, creating multitudes of environmental refugees; and the last of the world’s icecaps are melting. This is the world Basra (a hopeful and passionate Olivia Rose) tries to battle. She sits inside her air conditioned, fortified mansion typing on her blog ‘The Turquoise Elephant’, venting her frustration and agitating for change.
Meanwhile, her grandmother Augusta (an austere yet humorous Maggie Dence), whom she lives with, is publicly denying climate change and campaigning for global reliance on fossil fuels and her outlandish aunt Olympia (Belinda Giblin, hilarious) is touring the world to reap entertainment from various environmental cataclysms.
Augusta’s new maid Visi (a sceptical Catherine Davies) has an odd investment in the family’s political affairs, and Jeff (a flirtatious Julian Garner), a ‘creep with a Messiah complex’, turns up to convince the family to fund his ‘New Eden’ (a development in the middle of Australia where only a select few will be chosen to keep humanity alive).
Set against Brian Thomson’s sterile yet playful set, with Emma Vine’s appropriately quirky costumes and Verity Hampson’s eccentric lighting design, this is a disturbingly bold and almost uncomfortably funny new world.
Carleton draws heavily on absurdism and a clearly natural wit to reflect the ridiculousness of his world, and the urgent mess of the real one. He also shows a sharp, unsentimental understanding of the factional ways we as a society react to devastation and moral turpitude: there are the privileged who (in Augusta’s own words) couldn’t give a shit; there are those, like Basra, with good intentions but who don’t actually affect any change; others like Jeff who manipulate the situation for themselves – and their own profit; and the radicals (in the play, we meet them via video updates, hosted by a disguised activist) who see no way forward but to destroy all that’s left. It is a scarily accurate representation of the way humanity responds to adversity but the beauty of Carleton’s work is that it manages to deliver this scathing blow through a comic and enjoyable script. Its dark undertones settle in slowly over the course of the show so as to never overwhelm or feel like a personal attack on the audience; rather, it’s a slow, sickening awakening.
Director Gale Edwards tunes into the absurdist tones of Carleton’s script and lets it drive her production; its comedy is at the forefront through physical gags and clever staging.
The production is only lacking when it comes to fostering a personal investment in the narrative of the characters — while they serve excellently the allegorical purposes of the play, and their interactions are hilarious to watch, their trust or lack thereof in each other leads to many twists and turns that are a little less easy to believe, particularly because those emotional turning points (like Visi seeking help from Basra in a desperate moment) often lack their necessary heft. Likewise, Basra’s tumultuous relationship with her grandmother doesn’t carry the emotional gravitas it could. Some jokes don’t stack up as well as may have been expected either, but these moments are few and far between.
When the show is over and the laughter fades, what’s left is a confronting picture of the future of our world. It may be easy to brush off The Turquoise Elephant as a farcical imagining of our future, but considering the way our world is going, Carleton’s depiction is probably not too far off.