Note: This review is from the 2016 Fringe

Scour, by writer Rebecca Monks, was one of our favourite shows from last year’s Fringe, given five bombs as an “exemplary piece of theatre… littered with good humour”. Back this year with Tyke, an emotional-sounding new show, particularly for animal lovers, we checked in with Monks and the show’s co-directors Madison Maylin and Madelaine Cunningham to see what it was all about…

Tell us about Tyke …

Madison Maylin: Tyke is a new play based on the true story of a circus elephant who was abused her entire life. In the middle of a performance, something snapped and Tyke trampled her trainer, injured others, and escaped onto the streets. She was chased and shot at for almost 40 minutes – terrified, she died, slumped over a car. The play imagines the events leading up to her tragic break for freedom, with a love story between her trainers at its heart. The play questions morality, love, and power.

Rebecca Monks: As Madison said, it’s based on the true story of Tyke. But rather than offer a docu-drama style exploration of the event, it imagines what could have happened before the incident. It presents three extremely different characters, all interacting with each other in a turbulent way. Through them, the play explores the relationships and power struggles we have with each other, as well as ourselves.

Madelaine Cunningham: Yes, there is an incredibly human side to the play which explores the dynamics between human interaction and human/animal interaction. It allows the audience to view a cross section of what leads us ultimately to cruelty and using animals like Tyke for human amusement.

What grabbed you about her story?

MM: The play offers many hard truths and questions – questions I wanted to explore. If we are top of the food chain, shouldn’t we be responsible for this planet, or does that give us the right to do as we wish regardless of cost? Does power breed greed, or compassion? How far are you willing to go for your family, for someone you love?

MC: The whole reason I make theatre or am involved is because I believe it needs to speak, to pose questions; whether one is laughing or crying. Punchy, contemporary theatre is what I love to make and see – and this play is just that. Tyke is so relevant now as we see the increasing pressure for those who use animals for amusement start to mount, by making this work we join those piling on the pressure, hopefully creating more awareness. On a very personal level, Tyke was an African elephant and being African myself I have been privileged enough to see these glorious creatures in the wild, up close – I have seen them mourn, seen them play and be free. So when I picked up the script and researched her conditions my heart broke.

Rebecca, you’ve chosen to fictionalise it. Was that because there were particular elements you wanted to change or bring in?

RM: Not necessarily. Rather, I wanted to deal with elements that were there in a sensitive way. What happened to Tyke was absolutely awful, but then so was what happened to the trainer. Somebody lost their life on stage. This incident was deeply complex and upsetting, and I wanted to be respectful to that. This play is in no way about the people involved in the incident. The characters I have created represent a spectrum of humanity instead: Proudlove has no regard for animals, Veronica is deeply concerned with their welfare, Stefan is easily influenced either way. These fictional people are not based on any one person, but rather, they represent different attitudes which exist within different strands of society.

How do you address the “elephant in the room” – you can’t fit a full size pachyderm in a tiny Fringe venue?

MM: We can and we will! We’re so excited to share Tyke with the world, she is extraordinary and life size. We’ve been working closely with puppetry company, House of Stray Cats, to create Tyke and she has been built for us by the very, very talented Maia Kirkman-Richards.

MC: She’s going to be a presence alright. But I think this hulking beauty cramped in a tiny venue will further highlight what we’re trying to say.

Do you think society’s learnt any lessons from Tyke’s story? Cecil the Lion and Harambe the Gorilla might suggest we haven’t.

MM: Unfortunately not. How we treat animals is a huge problem all over the world. You only have look into animal testing in the cosmetics industry, puppy mills, dog fighting, factory farms, or horse racing. Many of which all happen right here in the UK. These are very real issues, but demonstrate a wider problem – we view animals as things at our disposal. Yet, there’s a disconnect with how we’d treat our pets, for example. We have much more to learn. And we will. But it’s art such as Tyke that can change how we think and ultimately how we behave.

MC: I don’t think we have but I think we are beginning to stir from our elected slumber on this issue. Seaworld‘s stopping their breeding programme, a tiger named Hoover has been released from an abhorrent circus. But this is all due to the unrelenting barrage of hard and dangerous work taken on by activists. Making work like Tyke will hopefully encourage more of a dialogue around animal cruelty and it won’t just be activists fighting anymore; it will be all of us.

Has writing the play made you think differently?

RM: If anything, writing Tyke has made me feel more strongly about the tragic nature whole thing. I won’t go into too much detail, but there’s an abuse scene which I found particularly hard to write (and which I know Madison found particularly hard to read at first). When I wrote the most violent part, I was sat in the National Library of Scotland typing and crying. It’s made me passionate about sharing the story though, and hopefully stimulating important conversations about the way we treat animals and each other.

How are you feeling second time round at the Fringe?

RM: Exactly as nervous and excited as I was the first time round. Tyke is completely different from my first play, Scour: it’s a big piece with even bigger characters, a world away from the quiet, intimate monologue we produced last year. It’s a whole new project, but I’m extremely excited to tackle it with Madison and the rest of the team.

Tyke is @ Silk, Edinburgh, from Fri 5 – Sat 27 Aug 2016 @ 19:35