At Bristol Old Vic from 3 – 6 February, The Dog & the Elephant, written by Bristol-based playwright and Director Matt Grinter and starring former Bristol Old Vic graduate Jack Johns.

Inspired by an unlikely catalyst which sparked the idea within writer Matt, based on a true tale of a burial ground close to his home town of Kingswood in Bristol, which turned out to conceal an ancient elephant corpse.  Or so legend would have it.  Taking this dark, unexpected vision as the core of the imaginative thread to run through this original play, Matt has given life to the narrative through his main character Bendigo, a  complex, spirited character who fights for his survival against odds.

Matt and Jack founded the Cuckoo Collective theatre company in 2014, specifically to produce and tour their new production The Dog & the Elephant. Matt is also the artistic director of Red Rope Theatre and his previous directing credits include Two Way Mirror, A Great Undertaking in Little America and Orphans.

“Essentially, it is personal story about a boy looking to belong.”

Jack Johns graduated from Bristol Old Vic in 2011 and has since racked up quite a number of credits for his stage acting including These Are Your Lives, Othello and Muswell Hill.  He fully immersed himself in all of the opportunities that Bristol Old Vic had to offer, and has found that doors have opened that might never have presented themselves.  Just last year, he involved himself in his first television production which proved to be a challenge and one which he relished adapting to.  However, playing the part of Bendigo has been an entirely new experience, as he explains:

“Playing the part of Bendigo has been a huge challenge. The role is incredibly physically demanding as he has Tourette’s Syndrome. It can leave you feeling exhausted after a show. I’ve had to get into shape for the role too and learn some boxing basics. The biggest challenge is that, being a one-man show, there is no-one to catch the ball if you drop it.”  Jack says.

The story charts the unlikely kinship between young boxer Bendigo Barlow, and his unlikely connection with Ina, an elephant from a Bostock and Wombwell Travelling Menagerie.  The Dog and the Elephant introduces us to the brutal world of Victorian bare-knuckle boxing, where Bendigo’s struggle to live with Tourette’s syndrome is made all the more difficult by fear and ignorance as he is violently shunned by those who simply don’t understand.

Matt Grinter has combined physical theatre with immersive soundscapes, to great effect.  The final concept took some working, as Jack recalls:

“The development process was great, we had time to research and work through a lot of the ideas Matt and I had. The wealth of information we had was massively helpful to inform us when creating the world that Bendigo exists within.”  Jack explains.

Though built on the foundations of an unknown story, and the hidden depths buried deep below a sleepy, rural village in Bristol, writer Matt has managed to bring the characters and their personal struggles to life, with empathy and compassion – which Jack Johns has been able to create into a tangible and likeable character within Bendigo:

“Essentially, it is personal story about a boy looking to belong.  I was grabbed by the internal conflict of a man having to live with the things he has done, sometimes terrible things.  This guilt comes out through his physicality and here is a direct link between what he feels and how he acts.”  Jack says.

“I haven’t been through the things Bendigo has gone through, but it is my job to empathise and relate to him in order to present a truthful performance.”

Playing the part of Bendigo, Jack has been able to bring sides of his own personality to the role, and in doing so, has developed a character who is both relatable and also highly contradictory – yet always with a sense of greater purpose and an aspiration towards finding the cohesiveness within himself:

“I think you always bring something of yourself to a role. I haven’t been through the things Bendigo has gone through, but it is my job to empathise and relate to him in order to present a truthful performance.  If I can get audiences to empathise with this morally ambiguous character, and root for him despite the things he’s done, I’ve done my job. I hope the audience will empathise with him as well.  I think there’s always a bit of escapism when acting.”  Jack explains.

The Dog & the Elephant is coming to Bristol Old Vic on 3 – 6 February with a film version being released in the spring by Found Studio.

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