THE ELEPHANT MAN playing at PACT is a production which takes its responsibilities very seriously. Avoiding any gratuitousness, it foregrounds the human spirit with respect for the material and a balance of storytelling and philosophy. And a great deal of hard work for such a short season.
Most people would know the story of Joseph Merrick, in this play named as John Merrick, known as The Elephant Man when he made a living being displayed in carnivals. The 1981 film has a definitive performance by John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as his doctor Frederick Treves but the 1977 play by Bernard Pomerance has a different ethos. Equally compassionate and compelling, the play is ultimately about the inability of science to be as great as religion. But it still relies on 2 important central performances.
In the central role of John Merrick, Jack Berry does a terrific job. He has very skilful physicality, the creation of which is done in front of the audience and maintained with focus. His choice to use a voice which is clear and easily understood is a good device which supports rather than diminishes the characterisation. It allows the intelligence of his creation to be writ and understood. In the early scenes before Merrick is given rehabilitative care, Berry imbues his character the innate strength of human survival despite his animalistic, beaten existence and our empathy is irrevocably engaged. For it is important to see Merrick as his own man and not through the eyes of Treves.
Nicholas Gledhill has created a fine and detailed character in Treves. A man of science, of Victorian beliefs in rules and for whom scientific study is merely man’s interrogation of nature’s unerring order. This is not a cold performance though, Gledhill brings considerable kindness to a role that, nevertheless, does show him as a man of his time.
There is little warmth towards Merrick. He is mistreated cruelly by William Jordan’s Ross who is Merrick’s early tormentor. There is a blow laid upon Merrick by Ross that really does take one’s breath away. When he leaves the circus for the relative safety of the hospital where he will live out his days, the Governor Carr-Gomm has an eye to the main chance of fundraising and Marty O’Neill brings this to the fore in an unforgiving way.
Where Merrick does have a strong support is when he meets Mrs Kendall, played with heart and warmth by Melanie Robinson. This is such a good performance from Robinson who brings to life a woman who knows the tricks of artifice and control of emotion yet is disarmed by, and responds affectionately to, the man inside the deformity. A lovely performance from Robinson and heartbreaking scene work from she and Berry.
There are things to say, though, about the show. The performances of some of the company were still settling on opening night, nerves were pretty evident, and there were definitely elements which missed their mark in the production as a whole but director Debbie Smith has conceptualised with a clear understanding of the nature of the play. The set is simplicity in design and extremely evocative in giving a circus, fairground feel. While the centre stage, elephant box, tiers do affect the fluid movement of the cast around them, the effective use of display is moving and appropriate. And with audience on three sides it is very theatrically absorbing to have cast so close. One doesn’t always have the opportunity for such intimate watching.
The circus elements include some nice surprises and the irony in contrast between the Parade of Freaks and the Parade of Peers is well communicated. I particularly enjoyed one of the last scenes between Merrick and Treves where they seldom looked at each other, Treves staying still. There was such a strong sense that they were in a room together just conversing. This really tuned me into the complex philosophical argument that was being explored.
The lighting (Audio/Lighting Designer: Michael Schell) avoids strong colours, apart from a disappointing modern blue, and that keeps the reality grounded to the story and the period intact. Avoiding lighting theatrics in the sideshow sequences is also very shrewd. There are some well-chosen sound effects and music that sits well within the themes. The grandfather clock tick is especially well used. The costuming (Designer: Susan Carveth), though there a few missteps in details such as striped socks, shows an extraordinary amount of work for such a short season with the curation of the attire conjuring both period and character. There’s a subtle coat echo in the dream sequence that is delicious and congratulations to the company for their complex handling of those speedy changes.
There is much to enjoy about THE ELEPHANT MAN which has three terrific performances at its heart. I took away a mood of introspection about our contemporary treatment of disability and the ‘other’. And a gratefulness that words like “moron” are now anathema and that despite our historical failings, there are always people who bring us to an understanding of the best of humanity.