Simon McBurney on The Elephant Vanishes, Time Out, 2003

4th June 2003

Taken to tusk

Simon McBurney’s work with Complicite has made him one of the world’s most respected theatre directors. Now, in The Elephant Vanishes, he adapts three stories by Haruki Murakami, with a cast who don’t speak English. Pushing his luck? We followed him to Tokyo to find out. Published June 2003.

Simon McBurney is striding up escalators. Onwards and upwards he goes, past a department store, a DVD shop and a wheelchair showroom. Head bowed, brow furrowed and arms weighed down with a precarious assortment of bags and papers, he has a touch of the White Rabbit about him, yet could also pass, with his blue-tinted shades, for a dangerous-to-mess-with rock star. There’s no ‘Hello, good morning’ on offer; I must hasten after him as he bustles towards the Setagaya Public Theatre, one of Tokyo’s better subsidised and best equipped stages, situated – with a corporate logical typical of this crowded, cluttered city – on level three of a shopping mall.

We’re just hours away from the official opening performance of The Elephant Vanishes, McBurney’s version of a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami, widely accounted as Japan’s most exciting – and richest – living author. After some agonising last year, the reclusive writer gave permission for this one work to be adapted. Understandably, Complicite’s trail-blazing artistic director is feeling the consequential stress, or ‘su-to-re-su’ as the Japanese – copycatting the word – pronounce it.

Only the evening before, there was an earthquake – not the metropolis-flattening nightmare everyone’s been dreading for the past decade, but an unnerving ground-shaker even so. McBurney didn’t notice it. It would need a tremor of a far greater magnitude than Richter Scale 3 to divert this intensely focused Brit abroad from the task at hand of pulling together one of the most ambitious shows in his 20-year career.

Not only has he elected to work with an entirely foreign, non-English speaking cast for the firs time – producing a test in a language he’s barely begun to learn – but the 45-year-old has also decided to go for technological broke, employing the kind of state-of-the-art gizmos usually associated with gadget-happy theatrical pioneers from over the pond such as Robert Lepage, Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group.

This means live video cameras, projectors that whiz across the floor, a screen that turns from transparent to opaque at the touch of a button, and hard-disk drives groaning with captured image and manipulated sound, even as Underworld dance track crossed with Wagner’s Tannhauser. In Tokyo, where devotion to all things electronic runs in people’s veins, not to get techno fever would be a kind of sin. Even so, there’ll be hell to pay if something cuts out.

To avid fans, this project – though a long way from the folksy, Eurocentric, communal story-telling that became a hallmark of Complicite shows in the ’90s – will fit with recent turns in McBurney’s career. Work with the Emerson String  Quartet in The Noise of Time in 2001, and with Hollywood A-listers headed by Al Pacino in an acclaimed revival of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui last October, have demonstrated that McBurney is now feted around the world. And the award-winning Mnemonic, which came back to London in January, three years after its premiere, announced a hitherto unsuspected passion for technology from a man whose childhood home was a TV-free zone.

Nevertheless, it’s only in coming face-to-face with The Elephant Vanishes that you realise what a radical, risky departure this is. As the clock ticks towards curtain-up during the final technical run, McBurney’s minutes are divided between attending to his seven actors and ensuring his crew get their fiendishly complex audio-visual cues spot-on.

Judging by the gritted teeth asides of the production team, McBurney’s working methods – of putting things together on the hoof, and placing the actor at the centre of the devising process – has represented such a seismic shift in approach for his cast that it’s left some feeling decidedly wobbly during the 10-week stretch of rehearsals. “We’re not used to making work right up to the last minute,” confides Yuko Migamoto, one of the actresses, through an interpreter. “Simon saw me shaking with nerves, came over and said, “Isn’t this exciting?” So I said – “Oh right, I see, I’m meant to enjoy this!”

McBurney freely admits, in a brief lunchtime reprieve, that “it’s been an infernal process. I don’t know why I’ve put myself through it. Some of the actors got very confused and disturbed. What freaks people out is that they don’t know what they’re doing and they have to get used to the idea that I don’t know what I’m doing either. So,” he adds with a smirk, “the whole thing becomes very scary.”

That fabled Japanese reticence and instinctive conformity has played its unwelcome part, McBurney concedes: “They have a completely different attitude to silence here,” he says. “If you ask a question, they like to go away and think about it. Ask a question in a rehearsal room in England and everyone will chip in.” but the contrasts shouldn’t be overstated, he insists: “There’s an enormous amount of instinct in the way I work – which the Americans had no experience of either. I had quite a tough time with Pacino, but when finally I had to go, he gave a generous speech in which he said: “I’ve never worked with anyone who seems to work so directly from their unconscious.” I’ve always had the experience of new collaborators freaking out at certain points. We have to go ahead on the assumption that we will find something. It’s a bit like being in the desert and assuming at some point you’re going to find water.”

Mulling over Murakami’s collection during workshops, McBurney whittled his selection down to three typically ephemeral stories: “The Second Bakery Attack”, in which a starving-hungry couple hold up a McDonald’s; “Sleep”, about a married woman who turns insomniac and becomes engrossed in Anna Karenina; and the title tale, about a salesman’s obsession with an elephant who vanishes from the local zoo.

“They sprang out at me pretty naturally because they all use the personal voice and it’s the same in each of them: there’s a split between the hidden inner imagination and what the external, social self must do.” On stage, that split is represented by the use of alter egos – with up to four actors at one point playing aspects of the same character, ramming home with a combination of surreal warmth and austere menace the theme of alienation that McBurney detects throughout the book and across the urbanised world.

“This is the most advanced urban culture in the world, and it’s fantastic in the sense that it’s incredibly organised, but  I perceive a terrible sadness and disillusionment here,” says McBurney. “The economic boom has turned into an economic shadow. It feels to many people as if they’re heading towards a disaster, which is coupled with an ever-present sense that the ground beneath their feet isn’t stable. And the problem of alienation, of being cut off from the past, is the same in all our major cities.”

That, at least, is what he considers the piece to be addressing at the moment; though that emphasis could change, just as the piece itself could change. Indeed, hours later, after a hitch-free performance that has the audience thunderously applauding his luminous, sad, beautiful vision of their city, he’s taking about an entirely new section for when the show comes to London, and pronounces himself dissatisfied with what’s been achieved so far. Tokyo is a city that never sleeps, McBurney an artist who never stops – the two were made for each other.

The Elephant Vanishes ran at the Barbican June 26-July 6 2003



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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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