The Trunk and The Tragedy
They say elephants never forget. And that’s why Herbert was perfect for the lead role in John Lancaster’s amateur production of Romeo and Juliet.
John Lancaster had been directing stage-plays for the last fifteen years or so. His acting career had been short-lived; his menacing gaze attached to a height that barely scratched five feet landed him a spot on the BBC’s flagship police drama of the time, starring as a mean-spirited police sergeant that clashed with the lead characters. But life imitates art, and a short temper and aversion to following orders made for uncomfortable working conditions and left co-stars in tears. He discovered he was much more comfortable behind the camera, and found a second chance as a director for daytime soap operas, barking orders like an overexcited Jack Russell. Eventually, John Lancaster switched from television to theatre. He completed a short stint on the West End, where critical acclaim greeted him but pressures of fame proved too much, before he moved north to the tiny village of Swillington, hidden amongst rolling green fields and tweed flat caps.
His work as director took him all around Yorkshire, from youth clubs to church halls, high schools to outreach centres. Aided by the country air and finally tasting good gravy, his once fiery persona began to dissipate, and John mellowed with age. He took to drinking gin with breakfast. He fell asleep listening to podcasts on woodworking. He tipped his postman a crisp twenty pound note every third Thursday of the month, without fail. He wore socks with sandals and cardigans with corduroy, and when it rained he would stroll by the canal, humming Broadway show tunes to sheltering ducks.
If people found him odd or eccentric, they didn’t say. John Lancaster welcomed Yorkshire into his heart, and Yorkshire responded in kind. His gaze was less menacing these days and more wistful; he could no more shout and bellow than he could sprout wings and fly, and though his directing style softened he still squeezed the best out of his actors. His reputation was unparalleled and his work much beloved. The only critic for miles who seemed impervious to his charms was Helen Yates, the entertainment and arts writer for Aberford’s local paper, the town a stone’s throw from Swillington. Helen was not one who doled out praise lightly; she could find fault in a Faulker, the blemishes in a Beethoven, and the mistakes in a Michelangelo. She had yet to give one of John’s productions a good review.
As Summer receded and Autumn arrived, bringing with it darker nights and an invasion of pumpkin-spiced flavour novelties, so also did it mean the start of auditions of John Lancaster’s latest production, the great Shakespeare tragedy Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare was going to be a challenge. John Lancaster had been merciless in his previous selections, and the amateur actors amongst the village of Swillington had risen to every challenge presented to them so far. Tears had been shed during the closing act of Death of a Salesman three years ago; the entire audience had been on their feet and singing during the big numbers of Grease two years before that; and more than one audience member had fainted from fright during the creepy, unsettling performance of The Woman in Black the year before. Poor Alfie Woodward, the milkman with a lisp who lived with his ailing mother, famously wet his pants during one jump scare and had to leave the theatre. The whole village heard about that one.
But Shakespeare was a step up. And this wasn’t going to be one of those modern-retelling versions. None of this replace-the-swords-with-guns nonsense, or update the dialogue to mention Instagram and Starbucks and cut out all your thee’s and thou’s. No, this was going to be a classic all the way, featuring all the Capulets and Montagues, teenage angst and untimely deaths that it was famous for.
The auditions took place on stage at Swillington Town Hall, with John Lancaster sitting a few rows back drinking herbal tea and taking notes. Juliet was cast quickly. Only one woman in twenty miles had the acting chops to play her, and that distinction went to Susan Hendricks, the pastor’s daughter with big blue eyes and a heavenly voice. The other roles were filled as the evening went on. Some were by regulars in John Lancaster productions, like Tommy Blake the seasoned ironmonger who was cast as Tybalt, and Keiran Frost the pub landlord for the local down the road who would play Friar Laurence. There were newcomers, like there always was, such as Liz Hirst the nursery teacher with more freckles than she knew what to do with, who was cast as Rosaline, and little Simon Dean, who looked like he was still in primary school and got his mother to drive him to the audition, but when he took to the stage he was one hell of a Benvolio, it left John with no choice but to cast him.
Soon, only the lead role of Romeo was left unfilled. Many men came and auditioned, and all came up short. Either they didn’t have the heart, or the passion, or they simply stumbled over the dialogue.
That was when Herbert strode in. Herbert was twelve feet tall, his skin was grey and wrinkled, and his tusks were a dull white. The room shook with every step he took. His trunk swayed with mindless abandon, and his tail flicked arbitrarily. He came in through the front door with as much ease as a human would walk through a spider’s web, and with as much oblivious force. Sure, he wasn’t exactly what John had been looking for. An elephant would surely be nobody's first choice for the lead in a 17th century tragedy, John would be the first to admit that. But there was no denying that he nailed the audition. It wasn’t just the fact that he had memorised all his lines before he had even got there, and delivered them succinctly and flawlessly. It was the passion. The intensity. Have you ever looked into an elephant’s eyes? The amount of emotion they can portray from the merest squint, from a trembling lid, from a maddening glare, is unparalleled.
John cast him on the spot.
Swillington became a circus after that, and John Lancaster the ringmaster. The tabloids soon got hold of the fact that an elephant had been cast in John’s latest production, and reporters from all over the country flocked to Yorkshire with reckless tenacity for pictures and interviews. Cameramen and news hosts lined the streets, small car parks became packed with camper vans and trucks from TV studios. You could barely turn a corner in the village without some freshly preened news anchor shoving a microphone in your face, looking for a sound bite. John couldn’t go anywhere without a trail of vultures clicking at his heels, and the public park opposite the town hall where rehearsals were held became a campsite filled with tents and tourists. Helicopters circled the village day and night, the sound of propeller blades ceaseless against the tranquil calm of a restless county.
An abundance of pop-up stalls selling elephant themed novelties and knick-knacks seemingly appeared overnight, along with bus loads of tourists eager to buy whatever cheap accessory was thrust under their noses. All it took was one afternoon of heavy rain, and Swillington was awash with elephant raincoats and umbrella handles in the shape of a trunk. Business owners, eager not to get left behind in the wave of easy commerce, jumped on the bandwagon wherever possible. Keiran Frost, the aforementioned pub landlord, changed his establishment's name from The Three Hens to The Thirsty Elephant, along with a large colourful sign that hung outside that residents decried as “tacky and garish” but nonetheless attracted plenty of attention from camera-toting tourists.
The atmosphere in rehearsals themselves was not much better. The stage had to be reinforced to support Herbert’s weight, and the balcony set where Juliet would call from had to be raised significantly; the scene lost some of its impact when Romeo could merely raise his trunk slightly and reach his Juliet. The costume department was aghast when they got Herbert’s measurements, and proclaimed the costs would be sky high. Leading lady Susan Hendricks found it difficult acting opposite such a large mammal, and struggled with stage presence whenever the two were in a scene together.
That wasn’t to mention the animal activists who swarmed the streets whenever rehearsals were underway, chanting and protesting loud enough to hear from inside. They screamed of animal abuse, and as the days wore on the choruses of discontent morphed into shrieks and bellows fueled by anger and self-righteousness. It wasn’t long before the protestors were joined by a sub-sect of religious fanatics, a sanctimonious group spurred on by a pompous need to poke their noses into where they weren’t needed. Their main issue, they claimed, was of the kiss between Herbert and the pastor’s daughter Susan Hendricks, and the implied bestiality. Turns out even an implication was worthy of protest. They held up handmade signs with catchy slogans, declaring Dumbo + Bimbo = Sinful Mumbo Jumbo. The two groups of protestors, despite being unified in the objection, were at unease with each other, both thinking the other group were ‘whack jobs’. Their chants were discordant and inharmonious, and both groups steadily increased in volume to attempt to one-up the other.
Despite all this, Herbert acted with the utmost professionalism. He was never late to rehearsal, he knew all his lines, and when the peanuts were passed around he left enough for everyone.
John Lancaster had been worried Herbert’s newfound fame might get to him, but the mighty mammal was a beacon of modesty. Herbert crept in through the back door, deactivated his Twitter profile, and declined an appearance on The Graham Norton Show.
Eventually, in late November, it came time for the Opening Night. Tickets were sold out weeks in advance. Ticket scalps preyed on the weak and needy, and prices were exaggerated to extortionate amounts. Those lucky enough to acquire tickets for the first performance arrived in the most exquisite and glamorous clothes; the men strutted in their suits and tuxedos, and woman pranced through the front door in silk dresses and long, fluttering gowns. A red carpet had been laid down on the steps leading to the entrance. Champagne was served on arrival by waiters. Swillington Town Hall had never seen such ritz and glamour, at least not since Noel Edmonds hosted the Great Yorkshire Cabbage and Cauliflower Best of Show competition in ‘84.
As the seats filled up, John Lancaster peered out from behind the great curtain to look at the assembled audience. A few faces jumped out at him; Swillington’s Labour representative Tom Phillips, in a suit made entirely from tweed; one half of the Ant and Dec pairing, although he couldn’t tell which was which; Alfie Woodward the lisp-laden milkman and his mother, sitting side by side and deep in conversation; and a small assortment of animal activists whom John recognised from the cluster of protestors that dogged his rehearsals for weeks, but who were now poised in eager anticipation. John also noticed Helen Yates sat on the front row, his old nemesis from the entertainment and arts section of Aberford’s local paper. She was in her late fifties, wore crow’s feet for make-up and dressed exclusively in pant suits. Her pen and paper were sat on her lap, her eyes transfixed on the empty stage. John gulped.
Backstage, there was an air of nervousness amidst his actors. He sensed trepidation and excitement in equal measure. Susan Hendricks was pacing back and forth, practicing her first monologue under her breath. Keiran Frost was shadow boxing as he went through his lines. Simon Dean was playing a handheld computer game with his headphones in, and Tommy Blake was hunched over the bin clutching his stomach. Herbert, however, sat in silent contemplation. John made eye contact with him, and Herbert winked. It was then John realised, everything might be OK after all.
The lights dimmed. The audience hushed. The curtain raised. Showtime.
John snuck out from backstage and watched the performance from the audience side. It was an old habit, seeing the opening night from the spectator’s viewpoint, and it was one he stuck to no matter what. John watched his baby come to fruition for three hours. Most of all, he watched Herbert. He was transfixed by his star, and so was the crowd. Herbert moved in ways that should have been impossible for a creature five and a half tonnes; he spoke in a way that seemed impossible for an actor with a face full of ivory. This was Herbert’s night, and everyone was merely along for the ride.
It was, frankly, a masterpiece. The applause was deafening, and as the cast assembled for the curtain call and bowed gracefully, there wasn’t an audience member not on their feet cheering. John Lancaster was surprised to find a tear rolling down his cheek, and he flicked it away before anyone could notice.
The house lights came on, and the crowd began to disperse. Before John could escape however, he spotted Helen Yatesa striding towards him.
“We have to talk about the elephant in the room,” she whispered to him, her eyes narrowing.
“He was amazing!” she almost exploded. “You’ve got a star on your hands there, John.”
Afterwards, when the audience had long gone and the rest of the cast had returned to their homes, John Lancaster and Herbert sat outside on the town hall steps. John puffed on a cigar with gentle abandon. Herbert drank from a pitcher of vodka and cranberry juice, his trunk hanging loosely by his side and taking little gulps.
“You’ve really opened my eyes, Herbert,” John said, between puffs. “Before you came along, I would have scoffed at succeeding in this. It felt ludicrous. It seemed impossible. But you proved them all wrong. Swillington and Shakespeare… Who would have guessed it? Next year we’ll tackle Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s a donkey with your name on it.”
Cigar smoke drifted into the night, and they looked up at the stars.
“I feel like I see the world in a different way now,” John continued. “Things aren’t just black and white, you know? There are shades of grey.”
Herbert nodded, and John knew he understood.
After that, life returned to a sense of normalcy. The production ran for another three weeks, and by the end they couldn’t even fill all the seats. The Thirsty Elephant was renamed back to The Three Hens, the garish sign taken down. The media circus that swarmed the village had gotten wind of an albatross studying for his law degree in Oxford, and they moved on.
Later, John received word that The Walt Disney Company was interested in signing Herbert to a contract. The movie and media conglomerate was going to send out acting scouts and wanted to meet with him immediately. John called for Herbert, and on a balmy Winter’s eve, they sat around John’s kitchen table and discussed the future.
“Herbert, I have news. Disney have been in touch. They want to make a deal with you.”
Herbert said nothing for a long time. He stopped eating from the bag of peanuts he had been grazing on, his trunk frozen solid in the air. A look of anger, disgust and, yes, fear almost, was spread across his face. Finally, he looked John dead in the eyes and said: “Work with a Mouse? John, you really don’t know me at all.”
Samuel Edwards writes silly words and foolish stories, all in a vain attempt to be respected and adored. Please don’t hold it against him. He has a Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree from the University of Leeds, and is studying for a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Samuel writes mainly to impress his pet cat, a feat he will never accomplish. Previously published in Vestal Review, The Birdseed and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. Tweets at @Sam_Edwards1990.