The RSC recently opened its rehearsal room doors to give a sneak peek at its brand new musical, The Magician’s Elephant. Adapted from the Kate DiCamillo novel of the same name, it is directed by Sarah Tipple, and features music & lyrics from Marc Teitler and book & lyrics from Nancy Harris. The show is about to open at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, but why should you add it to your list of autumn treats?
The show will be set in 1930s central/eastern Europe (a decision taken mostly by the creative team, as it isn’t fully specified in the book), so I’m anticipating some stunning set & costume design from Colin Richmond, as well as beautiful compositions from Teitler.
Richmond didn’t get any specific brief from Tipple as to what his designs should look like – he just had to follow the book and the music for inspiration. He felt he was rather “too keen” to get the job and pretty much “chased it down”; since getting the go-ahead, he’s been able to watch workshops and get involved in discussions – and the lockdown period provided an unexpected bonus of “elastic deadlines”, allowing the costume design process to take around 18 months. “It’s been an epic journey… There’s so much to visually represent onstage.”
The world in the story is called Baltese, and there’s a “magical realism” to it; the world has its own logic, rules & landscape – in a similar vein to other fantastical worlds, such as Oz.
In creating the show itself, Teitler and Harris worked closely together in a “pain-staking process” of composing & writing – they were working on the basis of a sung-through musical, so doing book and lyrics separately would not have been a particularly productive plan. “Each character has their own style”, explained Teitler, meaning that the music really brings each individual to life. Harris was initially quite intimidated by the scale of the story, as there are “so many aspects to it”, but as they worked through it, all of the stories managed to connect with each other. Director Sarah Tipple was also overawed by the “epic nature” of it, though she really enjoyed finding solutions to the “staging challenges” that were thrown up.
Puppetry. Well, you didn’t think a real elephant was going to be let loose on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre… Did you?! Mervyn Millar is the production’s puppetry director, and was also involved in the design process (with Tracy Waller): “It’s not my first elephant!” By the time Millar joined the team, Tipple and Richmond had already come up with their idea of the show’s world, so he could work within those parameters – though in reality, “it’s the audience that makes the character live”.
It was fascinating to see a demonstration of the elephant puppet; the design was a work-in-progress at that point, but the main aim was to create a young, female African Elephant – the remainder of the anatomy and behaviour will continue to be refined during rehearsals, tech, and early previews. As ever, the seemingly little things are the most important in ensuring the audience believes the puppet is in fact alive – judging by Teitler’s emotional response to seeing the elephant’s eye move, I’d say the puppeteers were very much on track.
You won’t just be getting the magic of theatre, and the wonder of skilled puppetry – you’ll be getting actual magic as well. John Bulleid is the magic consultant and illusion designer for the production, which has to be one of the more intriguing job titles in theatre! There are two types of magic in The Magician’s Elephant: actual magic (performed by the titular magician) and ‘real magic’ (connected to events in the wider world of the show). The story comes first at all times, so any magic or illusions used are there to “facilitate storytelling” and “elevate the storytellers”.
And have you seen the cast? For one thing, Little Shop of Horrors stars Marc Antolin and Forbes Masson reunite on their return to the RSC, playing Leo Matienne and the Police Chief, respectively. Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi & Suzanne Nixon are Team Elephant, #HonestAmy star Amy Booth-Steel is on board as the narrator – and no musical is complete without a Strallen! Countess Quintet is played by Summer Strallen, opposite Sam Harrison’s Count (both also making their RSC debuts).
As Harris states, “we’re all coming to the theatre as different people” following the nightmare that was 2020 (and beyond), so the whole company is hoping that this is the production that will take your breath away as you make your return to theatres.
“Music and magic are universal”
The Magician’s Elephant runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RSC) from 18 October 2021 – 1 January 2022. Tickets are available online or from the box office.