Jeremy Crutchley acts ‘Sacred Elephant’ by Heathcote Williams

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From South Africa comes a stage adaptation of “Sacred Elephant,” the epic poem by Heathcote Williams, performed by Jeremy Crutchley, a multi award-winning actor of stage and screen, and directed by Geoffrey Hyland. “Sacred Elephant” is the first of four world-famous, influential poems Williams has written on environmental causes. It was followed by “Whale Nation” (1988), “Falling for a Dolphin” (1990) and “Autogeddon” (1991). Sheer Nerve Productions, in association with Buy Art and Cockpit, will present the American premiere of the work September 4 to 22, 2013 as part of the Summer Shares at La MaMa, 74A East Fourth Street.

Crutchley is British-born and educated. With a 35-year career bridging two countries, he has also become one of South Africa’s foremost leading actors. In the UK, his work has been seen in several BBC TV dramas as well as with the RSC and on the West-End stage. His distinguished career includes Shakespeare, solo shows, Rock Theater, TV and Feature Film. This tour de force solo performance marks his first appearance on the US stage.

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Director Geoffrey Hyland has directed internationally and taught in South Africa, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. His innovative and insightful work has been nominated for several national and regional awards for acting and especially directing, receiving (among others) the Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Best Young Director and the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. He has directed over 100 productions in his career, including plays, dance, opera and cabaret. Geoffrey Hyland is a professor and head of drama at UCT, the University of Cape Town.

Crutchley and Hyland were mutually drawn to and inspired by this unusual work and the challenge to bring it to life as a work of pure theater. Like an African ‘Praise-Song,’ it celebrates the elephant, the most ancient and largest living land-mammal, whose complex nature most closely reflects our own. It comes at a time when the resurgence of the world’s blood-ivory trade is rampant, while captive elephants still entertain us and the ripple-effects of our desires, both brutal and subtle, threaten our own individual fates and sanity.

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Jeremy Crutchley as The Other. Photo by Rob Keith.

Jeremy Crutchley creates the role of “The Other,” a presence caught in the tension between the human and elephantine worlds, comparing and observing both creatures as an inter-species sensibility, timeless and ambiguous, treading the thin line between life and death. While the play’s inspiration comes out of Africa, its themes are universal: as relevant in the heart of the city as in the wild.

Williams’ popular and haunting poem begins, “The shape of an African elephant’s ear is the shape of Africa. The shape of an Indian elephant’s ear is the shape of India…” and dares humans to find any superior link between form and land ownership. The piece examines the life of elephants in their natural habitat and in captivity. Its text is stark and uncompromising, hauntingly beautiful and highly emotive: a fitting tribute to all the animals that have been and will be sacrificed to satisfy man’s greed.

The writing challenges mankind to regain its lost moral compass, asking what it says about us that we destroy a creature which, by our own measurements, is greater than we are. Even our capacity for religious reverence is equally under scrutiny. The poem digs deeply into the mysterious, majestic creature’s extraordinary and historic relationship with humans. Through this relationship, the piece sounds out the nature of the mind and soul of Man.

“Sacred Elephant” premiered in Cape Town in 2012, receiving three Nominations in the 2013 Fleur Du Cap Theatre Awards: Best Actor, Best Solo Performance and Best Costume Design. Crutchley’s costume, designed by Ilka Louw, has also been selected for display at the World Stage Design Exhibition (www.wsd2013.com/exhibition). The show’s website is www.sacredelephantplay.com.

Jeremy Crutchley is well known in South Africa and the U.K., having performed a diverse range of award-winning contemporary and classic roles. He has received many Best Actor National Theatre Awards in South Africa and has appeared with the RSC and in the West End. He was nominated Best Actor in the South African Film & TV Awards for his leading role in “Retribution” (2011), a thriller in the style of Cape Fear. He currently appears with John Cleese as The Glock in the feature films “Spud” and “Spud 2.” In January 2014, he wil be featured in the U.S. TV series “Black Sails” (Starz).

Crutchley’s varied and enviable career ranges from classics to solo shows to rock shows. He performed Doug Wright’s international hit, “I Am My Own Wife,” in 2009 to kick off the Grahamstown Theatre Festival and in South Africa’s prestigious 2010 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, the show was nominated for six awards and received three, including Best Actor and Best Solo Performance. Theater critic Peter Tromp (The Next 48 Hours) named the piece as one of the ten most memorable productions in his decade of reviewing. The previous year, Crutchley won Best Actor as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” before going on to play Alonso in “The Tempest” at Stratford-Upon-Avon and in that show’s sold-out national tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was a Fleur du Cap Nominee for his performance as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, also directed by Geoff Hyland.

In 2002-3 at Edinburgh and in the West End, he created the role of Dr. Drabble in the black comedy, “The Dice House” (based on Luke Rheinhardt’s “The Dice Man”). In the UK in the 90’s, he performed at London’s Theatre Royal Windsor and Orange Tree Theatre and appeared in various TV productions for BBC. In the 80’s, he attracted notice for his performances in Sam Shepard’s “Cowboy Mouth” and “Equus,” among others. Also a rock musician, he has written two Rock Theater works and recorded a blues-rock album. When “The Rocky Horror Show” finally hit South Africa in 1992, he played Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter in the original cast. His recent TV appearances include: “Miss Marple: A Carribbean Mystery”(BBC), “Kidnap And Ransom”(ITV), Martina Cole’s “The Runaway” (Sky TV) and “Women In Love” (BBC).

Heathcote Williams (author) is a poet, playwright and actor. He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects, “Whale Nation” (1988), “Falling for a Dolphin” (1989) and “Autogeddon” (1991). His plays have also won acclaim, notably “AC/DC,” which was produced at London’s Royal Court, and “Hancock’s Last Hour.” He is also a versatile actor whose memorable roles include Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of “The Tempest.” “Sacred Elephant” was the first environmental poem by Williams, although it was not commercially published until after his better-known work, “Whale Nation” (1988).

“Sacred Elephant” actually dates back to 1967, when Williams spent three months touring in India. While in Rajasthan, he observed local elephants and their trainers at close quarters. He also had a close association with a circus elephant named Rani and was able to watch her daily routine and behavior in captivity. Captive behavior, which is largely unknown to the general public, forms a large portion of “Sacred Elephant.”

The poem first appeared in print in 1987, published by Williams himself but in an unusual form. Three thousand copies were issued on elephant-sized paper and with print “large enough for elephants to read.” These newspapers were given away privately to friends and associates. That year, Williams performed the poem as a radio production, receiving many favorable reviews, including one from Harold Pinter who called it “a marvelous poem.” When Williams’ “Whale Nation” was published in 1988, it set a pattern for Williams’ books to follow, including “Sacred Elephant,” which was published commercially by Jonathan Cape a year later. Following this publication, the book received many more favorable notices.

It was recorded as a Naxos audiobook by Williams himself and given recitations, but it had never been explored for its powerful theatrical potential until Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley conceived this production. HeathcoteWilliams has granted exclusive dramatic rights to Crutchley to perform the work.

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Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant. Photo by Rob Keith.

The Argus Tonight wrote, “with Geoffrey Hyland’s direction Crutchley’s every move becomes laden with meaning, pregnant with the possibility of what it means about ourselves” and wondered, “What does it say about us that we destroy this creature, which by our own measurements is greater than we are?” The Cape Times stated, “Crutchley is a consummate performer and while weaving his sobering narrative he bewitches as the shaman and enchants as the fool.” Business Day wrote, “The tall, lean and grey-looking Crutchley – performs William’s hauntingly beautiful and highly emotive tale about ‘nature’s greatest masterpiece’ with the kind of grace, passion and power one expects of an elephant….For 70 minutes, the actor is all pachyderm; shuffling, loping, crouching, reaching, nuzzling and balancing for the circus crowd. He rages, cries and reprimands. But he is also often quiet, teasing and funny. For much of the performance, I found myself leaning forward in my seat, not wanting to miss a word.

It’s a flowing piece of narrative and Crutchley doesn’t miss a step….You’re unlikely to come away from Sacred Elephant without marveling at actor, writer or director–or all three.”

Set and sound design are by Geoffrey Hyland. The costume designer, Illka Louw, and the lighting designer, Luke Ellenbogen, are both award-winning designers and frequent creative collaborators with Mr. Hyland.

This performance is produced by Sheer Nerve Productions in association with BuyArt and Cockpit as part of the Summer Shares at La MaMa. It will be presented in La MaMa’s First Floor Theater, 74A East Fourth Street. Performance dates are September 4 to 22, 2013. The playing schedule is Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are$20 general admission, $18 seniors and $16 students. To buy tickets, call Smarttix at(212) 868-4444 or purchase online at www.smarttix.com. The show’s website, with photos and video, is www.sacredelephantplay.com.