In Wit and Fantasy Lies Truth
The late, great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series paints a picture of an extraordinary, surreal, fantastical but vaguely familiar society. His books are famously beloved of his many ardent fans. Devotees have clear mental images of the characters, action and environment of Discworld drawn from their interpretation of Pratchett’s words. It’s quite a test then for any theatrical company faced with the task of bringing those well-loved characters and events convincingly to the stage.
Under the experienced direction of Mark Preston, however, with an enthusiastic and diverse cast, Chelmsford Theatre Workshop’s production of The 5th Elephant, one of the final books in the Discworld series, certainly can’t be faulted in its aim to bring authenticity to both Pratchett virgins and aficionados alike.
The haunting tones of a cover version of Tears for Fears’ hit ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ gave the arriving audience a clue of the nature of the drama to follow. As the action began, Mark Sutton cut an appropriately suave and dashing figure as Commander Sam Vimes, nominally in charge of the diplomatic mission to the dwarf, troll and werewolf inhabited state of Uberwald. There is always a power behind the throne, though and Martin Robinson portrayed Inigo Skimmer in all his smarmy and sinister glory. His sense of comic timing was appreciated by the knowing audience as he declared, “I do not think, I am a civil servant…….I advise people.”
However, it was actions as much as words which were employed to great effect by the actors to demonstrate the feelings of their characters. Sergeant Detritus (Rob Evans) left a hostile werewolf in no doubt that Vimes’ deputation would not easily be deterred from their quest with a parting flick of his crossbow. As the token dwarf of the Ankh-Morpok City Watch, Charlotte Norburn’s coquettish beard twirling and checking of her reflection effectively alluded to the sense of sophistication felt by Corporal Cheery Littlebottom over the dour, drab dwarves of Uberwald with which Vimes was attempting to negotiate. Anna Harris was suitably canine (or is that supine?) as the cockney talking dog, Gaspode. His mission was to run with the wolves. Special mention has to go to Lewis Clark who put in a particularly physically arresting performance as Igor.
Bernice Cramphorn and her team have to be commended for the attention to detail they obviously put into the costumes. Gaspode’s bone and spotted neckerchief, Skimmer’s impeccable bureaucrat’s gold-flecked suit and the nocturnal black and red of the werewolves all helped to lift Pratchett’s characters off the page. The intimidating looking armour worn by Vimes, Detritus, Captain Carrot (Giles Margerum) and the dwarves would have proved a test for any costume designer.
It was made clear from this production that The 5th Elephant was intended as a celebration of equality and diversity as much as it was a parody on authority and bureaucracy. Cultural references to Chekhov and the role of women and different ethnic groups were drawn out effectively, providing an allegory for our current fractured world. At the end of the performance, a picture of Terry Pratchett was displayed in tribute to what would have been his 70th birthday. I think he would have approved.
The 5th Elephant continues at The Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford from 2nd-5th May