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The Elephant Man

Bernard Pomerance
Sheffield Theatres production
Hackney Empire and touring
(2008)

Production photo

Forget the David Lynch movie version of the story of the horribly disfigured John Merrick: although it would probably not have been made without this play, it was not a version of it. Pomerance's play, first produced by that brave company Foco Novo (which lost its Arts Council funding because it brought its touring productions into London) at Hampstead Theatre thirty years ago is not so romantically melodramatic and closer to a Brechtian lehrstücke. It is the dramatist's instruction that Merrick, the Elephant Man himself, be played without prosthetics or special makeup, relying on the actor's skill and the audience's imagination to provide his grotesque deformities.

But, though the play centres on him, Merrick is not an isolated protagonist. The opening scene presents Frederick Treves, the eminent doctor who discovers him in a freak show, at a key point when his career is about to take off and the revelation of the humanity and intelligence of Merrick happens at the same time as Treves become a fashionable medic with royalty among his clients. In Antony Byrne's performance we see that rather wide-eyed, excitable young doctor turn into a figure in fashionable society.

As Merrick, Joe Duttine rises magnificently to the dramatist's challenge. In a scene in which Treves first examines him he twists a normal body and his own good looks to match each detail of the doctor's description, while actual photographs are projected, but it is the actor, not the pictures, that is the more powerful and moving. For this is a real person not a triumph of the make-up artist. The man who silently suffers abuse and physical violence gradually reveals himself as a sensitive being with a questioning mind. Secure it seems in a religious faith he yet can question God. As he builds an intricate model church with just one usable hand he ponders on why he is so ill-made: the Creator "should have used both hands shouldn't he?"

Showman Ross (which Clive Hayward doubles with a bishop full of professional caritas), who saw Merrick as a source of profit, puts his finger on the motivation of those who visit him - not just his freak show patrons but the fashionable great and the good who visit him at the London Hospital - "People come and see you because it makes them feel better about themselves; there but for the grace of God " As his visitors come to view him as a human being rather than a freak, they each see him as a reflection of themselves. "He is so like me," they say, but the do not see the real Merrick. They give him presents, such as silver-backed hair-brushes that he is incapable of using.

Perhaps alone among them to perceive the real person is actress Mrs Kendal (presumably the real Dame Madge), initially the most artificial: a performer confident that she can cover any shocked reaction on first seeing him. She rehearses their meeting to get the tone just right, but it is she who understands him best and Catherine Kanter touchingly plays a scene in which she offers him his first sight of a woman's naked body that arouses no prurience, though a scandalized reaction from Dr Treves.

Both the strength and weakness of the play lie in its concentration almost exclusively on the reaction of others to the deformed Merrick. We get little opportunity to know what its characters are like outside this relationship or to know what Merrick may have been like before his condition blighted his life so totally. Is Treves as compassionate and caring as he seems or is he only really interested in a case study for his research with as blinkered and bigoted a view as other Victorians? I found myself wondering how he behaved with his wife and children.

What that emphasis on reaction to Merrick does is to reveal how very egocentric individuals are and to make us question our own possible reactions. Fairground freak shows may not be acceptable today but we have our own form of voyeurism in exploitive television programmes that pander to the same feelings and, as the need for posters on the underground that encourage us to treat those whose with disturbing disfigurements like everyone else makes clear, we are not so different from our great-grandparents in our responses. This play makes us question them.

In tone it is, perhaps, a little too hectoring, but Ellie James production keeps it moving, with music to carry one scene into another that at first has a strong feeling of the calliope, while Ellen Cairns' splendid set, like a battered wrought-iron bandstand, subtly suggests fairground, lecture theatre, and the high Victorian architecture of a winter garden or railway station without imposing any specific location so that scenes create their own locale within this all pervasive atmosphere.

This Sheffield Theatres production opened at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, where it was reviewed by Philip Seager, on 21st February. It plays at Hackney Empire until March 29th and then at Richmond Theatre 1st-5th April, 2008.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton