This play is, I must admit, intriguing stuff. Michael Aleen (Gwithian Evans) is a patient in a secure psychiatric hospital – and that is the correct term for this facility, as opposed to ‘madhouse’ or ‘asylum’: he’s dressed in everyday clothes and not in a straitjacket, and the consultation room being used by Dr Greenberg (Jon Osbaldeston) has no signs of using physical restraints on people. That’s not the only conventional thing about this production, which is set in the said consultation room, in real-time. The narrative necessarily jumps around, chronologically speaking, because it firmly establishes what went on in Michael’s life before he was admitted, which relies on the patient’s recollection of relevant details.
Almost immediately the idea of the unreliable narrator is introduced, and not so much because Michael is under the care of psychiatrists, but rather nurse Miss Peterson’s (Louise Faulkner) warnings to Dr Greenberg about his previous conduct. He’s a devious one, liable to playing mind games, a hypothesis from Peterson proven well in what becomes more of a power game. The sudden and uncharacteristic disappearance of a senior member of staff, a Dr Lawrence (an unseen character, because, well, he’s disappeared), is being investigated by Dr Greenberg, and what Michael quite reasonably has reason to believe is another psychiatric assessment is really a conversation as to what Michael knows about his assigned doctor, in the hope of establishing possible leads as to his whereabouts.
The play and this production of it do well to demonstrate that mental ill health and diminished intelligence are not mutually exclusive – whatever Greenberg may assert, Michael astutely draws him into his proverbial web, hook, line and sinker. It’s easy to draw comparisons between this play and something like Equus by Peter Shaffer, though the most obvious distinction is that Greenberg isn’t trying to treat Michael, merely wanting to extract information from him. Being a psychiatrist himself, however, he can’t help but delve a little further than is perhaps strictly necessary into Michael’s past – which makes the play a tad contrived but also provides the audience with a substantial backstory.
It’s also fairly briskly paced, with impressive timing between all three actors, making scripted overlaps in the dialogue very much sounds like the way in which real-life conversations would occur, with interruptions, a discussion of one topic triggering a thought about something else, and a decision as to whether to take an incoming call or continue the conversation and let the call go to voicemail. There’s some heavy material but it is presented in such a chatty manner, without long and emotionally draining monologues expressing deep thoughts directly to the audience, that I didn’t come out of the theatre in need of a nap. Various plot twists and turns also helped to maintain interest, and while some things spoken about were, in a word, crude, the play skilfully draws back from being shocking for the sake of it.
I found it refreshing not to encounter an explosive scene. Nobody completely loses their temper: if patients in psychiatric care can maintain civility, why can’t certain people in society at large? This surprisingly engaging play provides much food for thought.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Fraught with mind-games and verbal tugs-of-war, the UK premiere of this Canadian play sets a hospital director against a patient to find a missing psychiatrist. Against the advice of his colleagues, Dr Greenberg is determined to question Michael and ends up in a turbulent power struggle, trying to find the truth in Michael’s stories of elephants and opera, his distant mother, his forced stay, and his sexuality. As Michael tries to barter the truth for his freedom, he leads the director along with hints of relationships with his psychiatrist and the head nurse, with this game of cat-and-mouse leading to devastating consequences.
OnBook Theatre in association with Park Theatre presents: The Elephant Song
A psychological thriller set in a psychiatric hospital
Directed by Jason Moore Written by Nicolas Billon
Assistant director Luke Mazzamuto Set design by Ian Nicholas
Produced by OnBook Theatre
Michael Gwithian Evans Dr Greenberg Jon Osbaldeston Miss Peterson Louise Faulker
Park90, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP
18 January – 11 February 2023
Mon – Sat 7.45pm, matinees Thurs & Sat 3.15pm | £20 – £12 (£9 access), previews 18 – 21 Jan