David Lynch’s 1980 black and white movie of The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt as John Merrick, the hideously deformed but “human” phenomenon of the late 19th century, may well have obscured the deft theatrical qualities of Bernard Pomerance’s original 1977 play.
So it is good to be reminded of them in this admittedly unevenly acted, cheap and cheerful revival by Creative First, directed by Bruce Guthrie in the smaller, coffin-like studio of the Trafalgar venues.
Written in 21 short, sharp scenes – the very construction is redolent of fringe plays of the period; this was a powerful collaboration at the time between director Roland Rees for Foco Novo and Hampstead Theatre – we follow John Merrick from freak show prominence to high society fame through the attention to his case history of Dr Treves, anatomist at the London Hospital and later surgeon to King Edward VII.
It is a superb story, as we are taken right into the soul of a man too upsetting to look at, but played by an actor (unlike in the film) unhampered by make-up or prosthetic attachments. We first see Marc Pickering’s strangely attractive Merrick, in fact, butt-naked and rather beautiful, facing upstage like an anatomical chart drawing; at his one appearance as “a freak” at the Brussels fair, he is swathed in a black coat and hat, one eye peaking through a paper bag.
Otherwise, Pickering correctly implies deformity by an elegant distortion of his limbs in a handsome brown suit, a shaven head and a mouth wrenched by sheer effort to the left side of his face. Brown-eyed and mischievous, he is rather like Alan Cumming played by Peter Lorre. In the scene where the intrigued actress, Mrs Kendal (Jennifer Taylor), obligingly disrobes – having been informed by Treves that Merrick’s bone-exploding disease has not touched his bone-less member – he almost faints with pleasure at his one glimpse of paradise.
The play retains its metaphorical power as a fable of inclusion, for making room for the different, and indeed the deviant, in our lives and a consideration of what exactly we mean by normality. The questions haunt Treves, undermining his sense of professional esteem and feeding his despair at how humans abuse their privileges of health and well-being, just as Merrick advances on a parallel course of ascendancy, achieving rarefied social status and completing his model cathedral.
Guthrie’s production has too much audience-watching in the acting, and some significant irritation factors, not least the twittering pinheads at the Brussels fair who also move scenery of three wobbly standing flats and the muzzy articulation of Ayden Callaghan’s glibly tortured Treves. Stephen McGill overcooks the rasping nastiness of Merrick’s first manager and Ronald Fernee is ramrod reliable as various authority figures. But Pickering proves a likely new actor and the revival is worth its place in this intriguing Trafalgar season of guest productions.
- Michael Coveney