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“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”
— Theodore Roosevelt, 1910.
The former president of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt, delivered the “Citizen In A Republic” speech at the Sorbonne in 1910, one year after his presidency finished, nine years before he died and a good 20 years before the world was to receive the future King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. The “Man in the Arena” bore significant weight to Elvis and the words seem crucial to the development of his identity.
Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley’s lives did not intersect, but that has not prevented Brooklyn-based theatre company, The TEAM, from fusing together the essence of both Elvis and Roosevelt into one heartfelt, partly psychedelic drama that binds the two icons together in a way many would have never conceived. The TEAM are dedicated to making new work about the experience of living in America today. Founded in 2004 by a group of six NYU Alumni, the company has grown hugely and has an impressive body of work in their wake.
The TEAM’s latest, RoosevElvis concerns the life of Ann, a mild-mannered, “remarkably un-brave” meat-packing worker who has had the same job for 15 years. She engages with a bolshie taxidermist called Brenda who she meets online and the two spend a weekend together in an RV driving to Mount Rushmore. Brenda’s energetic spirit seems to lift Ann out of her static existence and Ann is in awe of all Brenda boasts to have achieved. After only a short time, Ann’s continual hesitations irritate Brenda, who grows tired and splits, leaving Ann devastated. Alone again, Ann turns to Elvis for comfort, using him as an alter ego to mask her lack of confidence and to draw inspiration from. Ann becomes emboldened and wants to seize an opportunity for progress. Ruffled by this sudden change, her hero’s hero comes into the mix: Theodore Roosevelt. Ann embarks on a road trip with her imaginary friend, and his imaginary friend tags along.
It seems as though an imagined relationship with a heroic figure can have real consequences to our self-perception, urging us to seek out our own version of Graceland and nudging us to discard our inhibitions. As Elvis puts forth in the play: “Graceland is a residence of the heart. It is far more than a place of physical needs…”
Elvis Presley is perhaps the most thoroughly impersonated musician of our time. Gaggles of King wannabes dress from head to toe in rhinestones, gold and blue suede shoes to pound the boulevards of America daily, taking their photographs with tourists and devoted fans. We are fascinated with keeping the spirit of Elvis alive, with rumours to this day that Elvis in fact never died (though surely by now a lifetime of gorging on red meat would have done the trick). Beyond his music, it seems that the image of Elvis himself has wild endurance. The aptly named Libby King does a fantastic job of bringing him to life via Ann’s imagined reality. Her performance as Elvis is more complex than drag; it encapsulates the very performance of gender itself by having her sway back and forth seamlessly between Ann and Elvis.
As Teddy, Kristen Sieh is a complete delight on stage. She bounds around with the energy of a springbok, yet thunders the immortal words of Roosevelt with inspired magnitude. She is a deft performer who seems utterly at home in this makeshift, Blue Peter-esque stage show. Less of a set and more of a playground, the actors and stage management team hurl and drag props and furniture around in full view, inviting us to watch the mechanics of the theatre set at work. There is a childlike sense to the way that the set works, in keep with the overall identity of the show. Screens are used in abundance throughout the performance and, perhaps, this is in keeping with the frequently uses tagline about The TEAM: “Gertrude Stein meets MTV”. You’ll certainly be reminded of early 2000s MTV with television sets being rolled around and grainy footage projected before your eyes. Had MTV been around in Elvis’s time, he surely would have found a home there, being a figure of mass popular appeal.
One of the great achievements of the play is that it explores two archetypal figures of masculinity to unpick femininity and to give strength to a person struggling with her identity. To aid her understanding of herself, Ann must take to the road, as is the case in many iconic American narratives: think Easy Rider, On The Road and Thelma and Louise, which of course detailed a fresh new take on the road trip story by placing two females in the lead of the buddy drama. Aware of this, RoosevElvis uses clips from Thelma and Louise to draw parallels with their own tale, to sidesplitting effect. It’s a goofy move than wins over the audience.
Ann travels over a huge chunk of America’s surface to find perspective on her personal landscape, properly discovering her home and self for the first time through imagined egos. RoosevElvis is a journey of acceptance through ridiculous means.
RoosevElvis continues at the Royal Court Theatre’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until Nov 14. Tickets range from £12-£25 with £10 day seats on Monday from 9am online.