There was a time when Simon McBurney and Complicite spurned technology in favour of communal storytelling that relied on the expressive powers of the body and the transforming capacity of inanimate objects. But - quite rightly, given the theme - they now subject us to a mind-blowing techno-orgy in The Elephant Vanishes, a brilliant stage evocation of the short stories of Haruki Murakami. It is presented in a co-production with Setagaya Public Theatre, from Tokyo, that merges the old methods of group narrative with breathtaking hi-tech legerdemain.
The piece hauntingly interweaves three tales that focus on the alienation of the individual from the mechanistic routines, imagistic overload and 24/7 relentlessness of contemporary urban life. In "The Second Bakery Attack", a couple of newlyweds, assailed by a mysterious hunger in the middle of the night, stage a gunpoint hold-up of a Tokyo McDonald's. In "Sleep", a dentist's wife mutinies against the repetitive conformity of her existence by staying awake (unbeknown to spouse and son) for 17 days and gorging on Anna Karenina, which becomes more real to her than her own life.
Topping and tailing those episodes is the title story, in which a PR for a kitchen-equipment firm becomes obsessed with the inexplicable disappearance of an elderly elephant from its local retirement home.
Collectively, the stories transmit a strong sense of people going quietly mad in a universe of white goods and electronic prosperity. People are not at home in the oppressively programmed future they have created for themselves. With his human and computerised resources, McBurney creates a stage version that more than matches Murakami's vision of a world where the mysterious fights back between the bland surfaces of hyper-modernity.
The frenzied pace and efficiency of Tokyo life are signalled by the pulsating images of non-stop locomotion that are projected at the back or stream from the video screens that are dragged and pushed across the stage. McBurney, though, conjures up a surreally sensitised world where distress signals obtrude through the banality. The desolate sound of a howling gale is heard when a fridge door is opened. There's an explosion when someone opens a can of Coke, and an amplified gasp when a woman parts the screens to enter or exit the marital bedroom.
To symbolise the radical divide between their inner, imaginative lives and their social existence, the characters can split into multiple personalities. A doppelgänger dangles in the air over the young male newlywed in "The Second Bakery Attack". He can float and fly and even walk down the front of the refrigerator at an angle of 90 degrees. With her daily routine fast-forwarded on a crazy video loop that parodies its numbing repetitiveness, the wife in "Sleep" is represented by four actresses - both in her housewifely functioning and in her Tolstoy-reading nocturnal truancy. The stage picture it affords suggests not just emotional fracture, but that hers is by no means an isolated case of crack-up in modern Tokyo.
Performed in Japanese with English surtitles, it's an evening animated by mischievous wit as well as by a feeling of foreboding. On a video screen, we see a wrinkly close-up of a creature's eye. A man then leans his palm against the side of the screen, his grey-suited body forming a supporting arc down to the stage. Abracadabra, an elephant.
Capturing the ache of urban modernity with a clairvoyant imaginativeness, this piece richly confirms McBurney's pre-eminence as a maker of theatre.
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