City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Quick! If you’re in London you have a couple of days left to go see The Elephant Vanishes, by Complicite (part of BITE). I went a couple of weeks ago, and it’s one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen – in fact one of the finest live performances I’ve ever witnessed.

Reminiscent of the Dumb Type show I saw, also at the Barbican, almost 7 years ago now – it was that good – The Elephant Vanishes is based loosely on the short story collection by Haruki Murakami. It’s highly impressionistic stuff, a few gloriously skewed unfolding narratives, riven with the dreamlike ‘quotidian surreal’ style Murakami spins for fun. They’re warm, funny, unsettling and thoughtful, throwaway and deep. It seems to me that if they’re about anything, they’re about Tokyo.

Visually, it’s quite quite beautiful. Complicite have added to their stunning physical choreography – including fabulous wire work – with polished and imaginative use of projected video and lighting, and a highly articulated, constantly shifting set – television sets drifting across the stage in mid air, furniture gliding all over the place, shifting on its axis, gently disorienting. Everything is densely layered, in the x, y and z axes. In terms of information density, it’s a stunning piece of work. Despite the tech – which is used with great skill, it seems to my untutored eye – the real delight is the acting and movement, Complicite’s neverending dance.

The Elephant Vanishes, by Complicite The Elephant Vanishes, by Complicite
The Elephant Vanishes, by Complicite The Elephant Vanishes, by Complicite

[If you do go, it’s surtitled Japanese, so sit back a bit and keep central for the best view/easiest reading position.]

The music and sound design is absolutely top-notch too. During the show, it was difficult not to be distracted by trying to ‘trainspot’ a few personal favourites, and scanning the programme afterwards confirmed the sharp deployment of quality ambient, electronica and techno from the likes of David Toop; Paul Schütze; Susumu Yokota; Brian Eno & Peter J Schwalm; Thomas Koner; Underworld; Ryoji Ikeda etc etc. All were used brilliantly. Particularly Underworld, actually, perhaps matching the brief of conjuring the battering sensory overload of Tokyo – reminded me what a pristine album Second Toughest In The Infants was/is. This was one time the ‘Al Pacino School of Dynamics’ – go from very quiet to VERY LOUD very quickly – actually worked. I was seduced numerous times by watching/listening to the device of sharp cutting from the thunderous Underworld – in parallel with frenetic visual information flows – to the counterpoint of delicate, spare ambient music and sudden stillness on stage.

I’d been meaning to let you know ever since I saw it, and now there’s only a few days left. Sorry! But if you’re in London, do try to catch it.

There’s more at the Complicite site.

The Elephant Vanishes, at the Barbican, London. Until September 25 2004.


One response to “The Elephant Vanishes, Barbican, London”

  1. tara Avatar

    great review, and thanks for the links and the music info. i love the work of both complicite and murakami – the perfect marriage really! i really want to find an image of the illusion they created – of the old caretaker leading the elephant- pure magic, with the choreography of suited chorus and chairs and the elephants eye in the tv screen… do you have any idea where i could get it?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: