Bernard Pomerance’s multi-award-winning play, The Elephant Man is a powerful and poignant look at both humanity and inhumanity, the suffering and stigma endured by Elephantitis-sufferer Joseph Merrick in the nineteenth century, a man whose only way of survival was by appearing as a freak in a touring show of physical curiosities, the butt of terrified screams, stares of revulsion and finger-pointing, not to mention actual physical abuse and name-calling.
Directed by Lee Lyford, with an inspired set design by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School student Caitlin Abbott, every element, from the subdued lighting, red theatre curtains and circus-style travelling box revealing the freakish exhibits, to the sole cellist on stage heightening the aura of tragedy and the nightmarish and sordid world of grotesque Victorian shows which took advantage of those who would otherwise have been destined for the workhouse, this play throws the uncomfortable limelight onto those who once commercialised disability through human ignorance and the tendency to scorn the unfamiliar.
My first knowledge of The Elephant Man (so named due to the nickname given to Merrick because of his malformed face, limbs and body), which premièred at Hampstead Theatre in 1977, was David Lynch’s enthralling black and white 1980 film version starring John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as his saviour, the surgeon Treves who worked at The London Hospital and provided him a refuge from a much worse institution. A likeable character who wishes Merrick to lead as normal a life as possible, he is nonetheless in many ways just as culpable for using Merrick to advance his own career and reputation, whilst gaining donations for the hospital by publicising his celebrity patient, much written about in newspapers of the time.
This beautifully re-imagined and choreographed amateur Bristol Old Vic, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Diverse City production is a welcome and long-overdue revival showcasing the deftness of Pomerance’s text, with subtitled performances which embrace more audience members than ever before as part of the Bristol Old Vic’s ‘Year of Change’ and their forward-thinking, unpatronising diversity programme seeking to widen the reach of the theatre as a whole and open doors to disabled actors, previously left out in the cold much like Merrick.
It’s extremely refreshing to think that where once the likes of John Hurt were praised for their acting skills in portraying such affliction, whilst disabled actors had no voice within the world of stage or film, Jamie Beddard (Co-Artistic Director of Diverse City) is currently revolutionising the theatre with an awe-inspiring performance. Leading an exceptional cast with an expressive, heart-wrenching and sublime take on Merrick’s infinite loneliness and isolation, his speech impairment highlights the frustration of being constantly misunderstood or misinterpreted, with a sensitivity and intelligence only discovered by Treves (Alex Wilson) and the actress Mrs Kendal whom the doctor recruits in the hope of overcoming the constant abhorrence everyone Merrick meets experiences upon seeing his deformed person.
Mrs Kendal (the outstanding Grainne O’Mahony) soon introduces him to a stream of her upper class friends including the Countess (Stephanie Booth), Duchess (Madeleine Schofield) and Princess Alexandra (Liyah Summers), who in turn patronise the hospital under the management of Carr Gomm (Gerald Gyimah). Soon Merrick is transformed into a semi-gentleman in a suit who entertains nobility whilst building an architectural model of a church. He is, however, still confined to his room and restricted by the rules imposed on him by Treves, ‘for his own good’; upbraided like a child when Mrs Kendal allows him the opportunity of seeing a woman naked for the first time. As an audience, we resent the fact that Merrick is still not being treated as an equal simply because of the unfortunate and degenerative condition he has been tormented by since birth.
The play naturally asks us all to examine our own view of ‘normality’ – for who is perfect? If once we grant this fact, we cannot fail to imagine how we should feel in Merrick’s shoes, whether suffering from the pain and humiliation of his condition in the nineteenth century or today. The world’s view of disability has taken a long time to change, never better illustrated than the Paralympics which continue to overturn the negative perception so many with physical disabilities still battle. If this production doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you must surely question your own humanity.
The Elephant Man at The Bristol Old Vic until 7 July 2018. Running time 130 minutes including interval. For more information and tickets please visit the website.