Reviewed by Samela Harris
The Elephant Man’s rare deformities defied 19th Century medicine and, from being a curiosity show exhibit, he was to spend his latter years charitably sequestered in a London Hospital. If he was a curiosity in his day, he remains so in our day, his fame perpetuated on stage and screen.
This Bernard Pomerance play has been drawing audiences since the 1970s, a new generation just as fascinated as the old with the strange and sad life of this cruelly-burdened young man. He was only 27 when he died.
In this beautifully-mounted production, director Megan Dansie has eschewed prosthetics but depicted the deformities of John Merrick through photographs and medical drawings projected lecture-theatre-style on the back wall. The play takes the form of a compassionate documentary and, as the doctor who took Merrick under his wing gives a clinical description of the physical phenomena which beset Merrick, actor Robert Bell clad only in undershorts, contorts his young body – first the face, screwed asymmetrical and awry, then the limbs, the left hand limp and disabled, the right holding a small cane, one shoulder lifted high, the head bent to one side, a hip raised, spine curved, a leg bent up so that only the toe touches the floor… Suddenly, he is pitiably deformed.
It is a compelling transformation.
Of course, his speech is not as terribly muffled as was that of the real Merrick but Bell achieves a sense of impediment while also projecting enough of his own beautiful actor’s voice to fulfil the communications required of the play. He takes the character from desperate inarticulate victim, when first encountered at the hands of the sideshow manager who steals his money and abandons him, to the closeted man in his hospital “home” with his model-building occupation and an array of society people who offer him a hand of kindness.
It is a nicely-wrought development, logical and convincing. And, it is a superb performance all round by that outstanding young actor, Robert Bell.
Designer Robert Webb has produced a striking set with a raised and raked circular platform on one side of the stage and an office-cum-home arrangement beside it. The projected images behind complete a quite elegant effect, albeit the actors seem to struggle to and fro across the rake.
Steve Marvanek ably carries much of the dramatic weight of the play as Frederick Treves, the doctor who saves Merrick from the doom of abandonment and who becomes both his protector and his friend. Sadly, in the 1880s, there was no real understanding of Merrick’s condition or anything that could be done. Even in his shelter of the hospital, he remains a curiosity. Treves, however, sees aspects of himself in Merrick and, the play asserts, everyone who meets Merrick is to find some form of mirror in his plight.
They are paraded in their Victorian glamor across the stage to meet the city’s great curiosity and he is to find ever greater yearning for normality from each engagement. Thus the added pathos of the play emerges.
The two principals are well supported by Dansie’s strong cast – Georgia Stockham, Tony Busch, Thorin Cupit, Philip Lineton, Sharon Malujlo, Patrick Marlin, Nicole Rutty, Jon Scholten and Jamie Wright.
In all, The Elephant Man is an intelligently-wrought and moving production, not without its moments of ironic wit.
And these six score years later, the Elephant Man still fascinates.