Reviewed by Rosie van Heerde
Based on the memoirs of eminent London surgeon Frederick Treves (Steve Marvanek), The Elephant Man is both a study in the life of Joseph “John” Merrick (Robert Bell) and social commentary on Victorian attitudes to disability – observations that continue to have resonance in 2016. Merrick suffered from extreme physical deformities that saw him spending his early life in workhouses and freak shows until he is brought to live at London Hospital by Dr Treves. There, he finds a safe haven, but at what cost? Playwright Bernard Pomerance gives us the factual events of Merrick’s life, but through characters such as Treves questions a society where those who profess to ‘do good works’ struggle with the reality of their motivations.
As written for the stage, the play requires the actor performing the part of Merrick to imbue the physicality of this man without the aid of prosthetics or makeup. Robert Bell mesmerises in the role as he slowly takes on each affliction as described by Treves in a ‘lecture’ to the audience. A stoop of the spine, a curve of the arm, a twist of the mouth and a curl of the hand, and he BECAME John Merrick before our eyes. The transformation was hypnotising to watch and Bell did an astonishing job of keeping our attention throughout the play. As the good doctor, Marvanek established his character quickly and managed to deftly portray the mix of arrogance, empathy and emotional confusion required from the role. Georgia Stockham as Mrs Kendall is convincing as the crisp, no-nonsense society actress ‘hired’ to befriend Merrick yet who quickly finds she has no need to pretend affection, such is the inner beauty and charm of the man others recoil from in horror. A strong supporting cast ensured the best possible treatment of other less developed characters across both Acts.
Director Megan Dansie’s interpretation is respectful to the playwright’s original intentions and its subject – the staging is spare, allowing the actors to do the work, the use of projections serving to reinforce rather than to distract. All components work together well enough to ensure that The Adelaide Repertory Theatre’s The Elephant Man is an ultimately grim yet wholly enthralling experience.
The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance continues at Arts Theatre, at 8pm until Sat 23 Apr.