Edinburgh Fringe 2018
An engaging and well-crafted adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s tale of a mother and daughter fleeing war-torn Dresden towards the end of World War II, accompanied by an elephant rescued from the zoo.
These are troubling times. Globally, it seems that conflict, armed, political or economic, and general fractiousness are on the rise, irrespective of your political viewpoint. North Korea. Trump. The rise of nationalism in many European countries. And Brexit. The philosopher Santayana observed that those who fail to heed the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.
An Elephant In The Garden relates the tale of an ordinary family living in Dresden. In the years leading to the outbreak of World War II, they become increasingly uncomfortable with the events taking place under the Nazi regime. The family are unconvinced by the Nazi rhetoric and are fearful of the consequences of their rise to power. When war comes, the father is sent to the front, never to return, it transpires.
The mother takes a job at the local zoo and brings home an elephant to prevent its execution ; this was a precautionary measure occasionally undertaken by zoos in the preface to bombing, designed to ensure that potentially dangerous creatures were not able to escape to roam the streets. After the extended conflagration perpetrated by Allied planes’ bombardment towards the end of the war, the mother and daughter flee now destroyed Dresden with no material possessions, accompanied by the elephant. Safety in Nazi Germany in 1945 was a relative question ; they decide to make for the western front, although are mindful that if successful they will of course head straight towards Allied troops They are more apprehensive, however, of the advancing Red army from the east ; any student of World War II history will know how well-founded this anxiety proved to be. Their plight is made more dangerous by the mother’s decision to take a shot-down Canadian navigator with them.
Alison Reid performs this charming piece of theatre with adept timing, as she breathes life into a myriad of characters. She takes on role after role and your belief is never broken. Her staging is decidedly Fringe friendly, being relatively minimalist. Instead of a falling back upon a complicated set, she chooses to tell her tale by investing in the characters and relaying the narrative beautifully. The danger of one performer shows is that the pace can drop all too easily, but Simon Reade’s seamless direction ensured that this would never be an issue. The play constantly moved. An Elephant In The Garden was written for the family market and as such there are times when the language has a simplistic style, but this does not denigrate from the performance.
This is surely a tale for our troubled times. Dreseden refugees in 1945 are mirrored by the plight of the Rohingya today in Myanmar, by the Syrians and countless others risking death and exploitation to cross the Mediterranean, or to trek through hostile and unforgiving territory because to remain in situe would be worse. Sadly, Santayana is right. The revulsion of Nazis and their actions can inure the observer from sympathising with ordinary Germans during the war, but Morpugo’s tale chooses to give an insight into the suffering of its citizens. Governments through the ages frequently let down refugees, either through design or infrastructure overload, and their fate can sometimes lie in the hands of the kindness of strangers, to coin a phrase ; An Elephant In The Garden touches upon this.
This is a poignant and charming piece of theatre ; some young children may be captivated by the tale of a child befriending an elephant – and others may see the work as allegorical to our times. Either way, it is a most enjoyable piece.