The elephant in the dock

In 1830 possibly one of the oddest murder trials ever witnessed in the region took place in Newcastle – and now it’s at the heart of a new Easter theatre production from November Club.

In 1830 possibly one of the oddest murder trials ever witnessed in the region took place in Newcastle – and now it’s at the heart of a new Easter theatre production from November Club. JANE HALL reports

IN the early 1990s actor Colin Firth starred in a film called The Hour of the Pig. Set in 15th Century France, he played a lawyer called on to defend a pig in a murder trial.

It was a glossy and entertaining movie with a seemingly ludicrous story at its core.

The medieval age may have been a time of mistrust and deep suspicion where the devil lurked in every corner, but a pig accused of killing a young boy? And actually made to stand trial? How ridiculous!

So you might think. As the public prosecutor in The Hour of the Pig, says: “Anyone who knows animals knows there are good ones and bad ones.” In medieval times it was perfectly acceptable in Europe to put animals and even insects that had committed crimes – normally murder – on trial.

By the 1800s the world was a more enlightened place. But that didn’t stop what must rank as one of the most bizarre court cases ever conducted in the region taking place in Newcastle in 1830 – that of an elephant called Mademoiselle D’Jeck accused of killing her keeper. The news made headlines across the world. For Mlle D’Jeck was not only an elephant, but one of the most feted actresses of her day.

Yet 183 years on this fantastical, but true story, had been all but forgotten, until rediscovered by November Club.

The award-winning Northumberland-based performing arts company is now bringing the tale to life for a new age in its latest production on at Newcastle Theatre Royal over the Easter holidays.

The enigmatically named Dr Mullins’ Anatomy of the Theatre Royal – November Club’s first appearance in Newcastle for four years – opens on April 4 for a 10-day run.

Playing between performances of the theatre’s main Easter show, Cinderella on Ice, it is an inventive, intimate and intriguingly interesting entertainment that hovers between truth and fantasy and owes much to the wild imaginings, sensational incidents’, broad humour and overdramatic scenarios popular in the early 19th Century when this fast-paced adventure is for the most part set.

A promenade presentation in the company of costumed actors, there will be no time for sitting around as the audience is expertly guided by the slightly sinister Dr Mullins around some of the Theatre Royal’s hidden nooks and crannies usually hidden from public view.

Participants – each show is limited to a maximum of 15 people – will have the chance to climb back stairs, see beyond doors marked private and wander under the stage where the Royal Shakespeare Company, Laurence Olivier, Sarah Bernhardt, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen and Hollywood legends Orson Welles, Charlton Heston and Katharine Hepburn, have all trodden the boards.

And holding together the production made especially for the Theatre Royal will be the astonishing account of the greatest performance of Mlle D’Jeck’s life.

The story begins one day in August 1830 as Mlle D’Jeck is walking from Edinburgh to Newcastle via Morpeth, having been booked to appear at the old Theatre Royal in Mosley Street in a play especially written to showcase her skills called The Elephant of Siam and the Fire Fiend.

The play – for which a new stage had to be built – had premiered in 1829 at the Adelphi Theatre in London, and was the highlight of the season.

Mlle D’Jeck’s salary was reported in the Theatrical Journal to be £20 a night – a phenomenal sum in 1830. The publication also noted that Mlle D’Jeck wasn’t brought in to perform irrelevant exercises but that rather “each action was an integral part of the plot”.

So successful was The Elephant of Siam (a handwritten copy of which still exists in the British Library) with its Siamese dancers that the drama went on a tour of the UK provinces, drawing huge audiences wherever it played.

It was en-route to Newcastle, however, that disaster struck for the much feted elephant.

Cinzia Hardy, November Club’s creative producer and director, takes up the story. “After walking down what is now the A1, the party stopped off at Morpeth and Mlle D’Jeck was left in the hands of her keeper, Jean Baptiste.

“Baptiste apparently liked his drink and thought nothing of getting Mlle D’Jeck drunk either. He is also said to have been cruel to her on the journey from Edinburgh to Newcastle.

“There are conflicting accounts of what happened on this night at their lodgings, but it would appear that Baptiste struck Mlle D’Jeck on the trunk and then prodded her with a sort of harpoon.

“It is then that Mlle D’Jeck is said to have retaliated and crushed Baptiste with her trunk. He either died on the ground of her stall or the next day.”

Despite her ‘crime’ Mr Nicholson, the manager of the Theatre Royal, had agreed with Mlle D’Jeck’s owner, Mr Yates, for her to perform at the playhouse. Indeed, the stage door had been widened to accommodate her. But before she could make her Newcastle debut, Mlle D’Jeck was charged with murder and put on trial.

For November Club, which has a reputation for producing unique theatre in often unusual places (they have performed in Dublin’s back alleys, gardens, museums, libraries, village halls and stately homes), once discovered, Mlle D’Jeck’s story was too good to be left gathering dust.

Dr Mullins’ Anatomy has been borne out of a collaborative piece November Club staged in Morpeth 18 months ago called Lord Sanger’s Circus.

It was inspired by archival material of visits to the town by the Victorian showman and circus owner Lord Sanger. As part of November Club’s research Mlle D’Jeck’s story was unearthed.

Like much of November Club’s work, nothing is as it seems in Dr Mullins’ Anatomy. Fact is weaved with fiction and time shifts between the 1830s and the present day as the audience delves into the bowels of the Theatre Royal.

Tying together the 90-minute experience is Mlle D’Jeck’s story as told by a series of characters (some real some made-up) from her life and that of the theatre.

The tour is continuously interrupted by reports from her trial and tension mounts as to whether she will have to face the hangman’s noose or be allowed to walk free to resume her glittering stage career.

Cinzia cites newspaper clippings from the time which “show a lot of Geordie lads got very excited when they heard about Mlle D’Jeck’s appearance as they thought she was a real showgirl! But then, of course, she had star billing.”

But what fate awaited Mlle D’Jeck? After having her day in court did she walk free or was she forced to pack her trunk away forever? As with the football results, if you are intending to take part in Dr Mullins’ Anatomy and don’t want to know the outcome, turn the page now.

For those of you reading on, it can be revealed that Mlle D’Jeck was let off with a fine of five shillings (25p) due to Baptiste’s cruelty.

But the poor elephant was forced to flee the country amid fears the court may change its mind.

Forgotten by a public that had once revered her, she instead ended her days performing in a circus in America.

A story of its time where truth really is stranger than fiction.

Dr Mullins’ Anatomy of the Theatre Royal is on April 4-13 (no performance April 7) at 11am and 4.30pm. Numbers are restricted to 15 per performance. Suitable for children aged eight-plus. Tickets cost £10 for adults and £5 for under 16s available on 0844 811 2121, www.theatreroyal.co.uk

This fantastical, but true story, had been all but forgotten, until rediscovered by November Club

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