The Turquoise Elephant review (Griffin Theatre, Sydney)

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I’ve never been able to understand what motivates climate change denialism.

Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence that climate change is happening and almost certainly a result of humankind’s actions, do many people violently reject that reality? Is it just too terrifying a challenge to tackle, or is there some greater collective cognitive dissonance at play? Or does the knowledge that we’re able to cause substantial change to our own planet just sit too uncomfortably with us? Does that spell the absolute death of an omnipotent god and place us all unprepared and unwilling into that role?

Stephen Carleton’s new play The Turquoise Elephant mightn’t entirely answer that question, but it certainly asks it in a wildly entertaining and often very funny way.

Set at some point in the future, in which Melbourne has gone under water and outside temperatures in Sydney regularly reach above 50 degrees, the play takes us into the comfortable, triple-glazed home of Augusta Macquarie (Maggie Dence), a wealthy Sydney socialite heading up a conservative movement which denies the human impact on climate change.

But while Augusta advocates for a return to fossil fuels, her granddaughter Basra (Olivia Rose) is busy at work advocating for sustainable change via her radical green blog. Into this mix, Carleton throws Augusta’s sister Olympia (Belinda Giblin), a disaster chaser who eats endangered species and seeks out the final moments before climate change claims its victim (the final ice melting on Kilimanjaro, the sinking of the Sydney Opera House etc.), a new maid/climate change refugee Visi (Catherine Davies), and a smooth-talking eco-friendly would-be entrepreneur Jeff (Julian Garner).

From there, Carleton’s play unfurls at a cracking pace with twist after twist. It would be wrong to give away too much of what happens, but the play shares a lot of its DNA, and a sense of absurdism, with Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. It loses a little steam at the halfway point and becomes a little numbing with each new outrageous incident, but it finds its feet again well before the ending.

Carleton’s play is packed full of wit, but it’s often the smallest touches that get the best laughs. That’s also true of Gale Edwards’ detailed, bright and deliciously vulgar production, and Brian Thomson’s fantastic set (which features an X-Box controller as an intercom — genius). Emma Vine’s costumes (and presumably hair and make-up) are similarly ingenious, with Augusta a grotesque caricature of upper class Sydney women and Olympia a perfect picture of wild, hedonistic eccentricity.

Both characters — and their looks — are brought to life with verve and skill by Maggie Dence and Belinda Giblin. Giblin fully embraces her character’s wilder and more impulsive side while Dence is terrifyingly tough.

They’re well-supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Olivia Rose, whose conflict between her beliefs and her actions resonates in the final moments of the play. Catherine Davies has plenty of fun with the melodramatic side of the piece, signposting every twist boldly. Occasionally it feels like she’s in a different production to the rest of those on stage, but it’s an accomplished performance.

Then there’s Julian Garner, who is disconcertingly sleazy and assured, and a series of scary clown-style, deranged on-screen appearances from performer iOTA

There’s plenty to fall for in this production — its politics are consistently intriguing, some of the writing is very good, and Edwards has a sense of showmanship like few directors working on this small scale. But for me, the best thing about it is seeing Dence and Giblin given the opportunity to play these meaty, hideous and hilarious women. It’s unfortunately rare that we see two great older female actors let loose on this sort of material, and they embrace every challenge wholeheartedly.

The Turquoise Elephant is at Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until November 26.

Featured image by Brett Boardman

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