The Elephant Man
Paul Johnson | 17 Feb 2015 12:43pm
After no official Hollywood recognition for its remarkable use of prosthetics, David Lynch’s famous BAFTA-winning 1980 film starring John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud prompted the Board of an embarrassed Academy Awards to swiftly introduce a new OSCAR the following year for ‘Best Make-up and Hairstyling’.
Bernard Pomerance’s fascinating play, written three years earlier and produced both in London and on Broadway, allows no such luxuries in its performing. Any actor charged with bringing the title role to life must instead portray John (Joseph) Merrick’s deformities using physical theatre only unaided by make-up or any other theatre magic.
Taking on the challenge this week, in the wake of a simultanious Fringe production just up the road as well as the recent news that Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper will also be starring in The Elephant Man in the West End this coming May, is Bromley Little Theatre.
It’s an interesting concept to let the audience form its own versions of Merrick’s appearance, which Pomerance offers up early on during surgeon Frederick Treves’ anatomical lecture. However, with Merrick’s disturbing physicalities so well documented nowadays, largly thanks to Lynch’s black and white film – BLT’s director, Tony Jenner, can be mostly forgiven for further ‘giving the game away’ by projecting photos of the real John Merrick during Treves’ lecture.
Going a long way to overcoming the projected distractions, Kyle Cluett’s (naked,) clever and coordinated physical transformation is well choreorgraphed alongside Treves’ lecture to successfully accentuate Merrick’s numerous disfigured elements. Throughout, Cluett manages to bring a high level of believable emotion and personality to Merrick’s life – deprived of experiences but not feelings and desires.
It’s important to understand – and Jenner’s BLT production vividly drives this home (aided by Jenner’s own stylish design, a blacked-out set with striking standalone doorways) – the film was a highly romanticised version of real events. Merrick was not the beaten and abused prisoner of a freak show owner, nor was he an educated gentle soul who chose to read from the ‘Good Book’ every day (you only need look at the way Oliver Twist was transformed from urchin into angelic choirboy for the sake of musical cinema).
Unable to find work, and after first admitting himself into a workhouse, Merrick voluntarily sought employment as a circus exhibit. In the same vein, Frederick Treves was not the Mother Theresa-style character as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. In fact it’s facinating watching BLT’s Steve Williams bring to the stage a man who, it could be said, merely became Merrick’s next boss – but instead of using a Victorian Freak Show taught him some airs and graces to parade him to society’s elite. Treves enjoyed much wealth, fame and success on the back of his association with Merrick, as did the London Hospital. As the play progresses Williams skillfully gives us a glimpse of Treves’ moral torment as he battles with the trappings of his success against his obligations toward Merrick.
As renowned stage actor, Mrs Kendal, Emma Sweeney arguably adds the most humanity to the production in a thoroughly moving performance. Kendal’s first meeting with Merrick at the end of act one, where Treves first employs her services as an actress – not to portray contempt and disgust – is probably the stand-out moment of the production, with the audience around me visibly and emotionally affected.
The mixed quality of the supporting cast means that, unfortunately, one can’t help waking from this wonderful theatrical illusion from time to time but I certainly won’t be taking this opportunity to single out any cuprits. What I will happily do is give special mention to the talented contribution by the experienced Robert Dilks (Lord John) and Dennis Packham (Bishop Walsham How). I found the latter’s participation in the religious/atheistic arguments with Paul Ackroyd’s Carr Gomm, Chairman of the London Hospital particulary fascinating (After all, didn’t God make Merrick?).
- : admin
- : 16/02/2015