The Elephant Man (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Bradley Cooper stars in this ‘expert revival of a beautiful play’

Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson
© Joan Marcus

Bradley Cooper deservedly won a Tony nomination for his performance as John Merrick, the Victorian "freak" for whom the surgeon Frederick Treves at the London Hospital became physician and benefactor, and it’s a pleasure to welcome him to London in this expert revival of a beautiful play, which arrives from the Williamstown Theatre Festival via last year’s Broadway season.

In Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 drama – which, like the very different David Lynch movie starring John Hurt, draws on Treves’s memoir as a primary source – there’s a scene where the doctor presents a slide show of a man who appeared so hideous he caused hysterical panic in public.

As Treves describes his deformities, the well-honed Adonis-like figure of Bradley Cooper stands in soiled trunks to the other side of the projection screen. He moves an arm, he opens his mouth, he sinks slightly at the knees, he stiffens at the hip, he picks up a stick. He is transformed outwards.

The point is, we’ve seen the inner glow, and it’s there for the rest of the performance, banked down, disguised in Merrick’s exaggerated movement, the lolling left jaw – Cooper looks peculiarly like Ronald Reagan – the curled foot, the distorted squeak of a voice with mellow undertones. He avoids every trap of "disability" acting by suffusing this outer appearance with soul and passion. It’s a wonderful, and very moving, display.

But not the only one in Scott Ellis’s stark and severe production, very much in tune with the Brechtian aesthetic in Pomerance’s writing and structure. I’ve long admired the sultry screen performances of that Louisiana belle, Patricia Clarkson (and not just in Six Feet Under), and here, as the actress, Mrs Kendal, who joins the celebrity circus around Merrick and touches his heart, she is funny, beautiful and by turns perversely fascinated and compassionate.

She expresses the actress side of the character in her posture, flightiness and airy, tapering gestures but her discussion of Romeo and Juliet with Merrick leads to a mutual regard which also contains elements of understanding and attraction. Human contact in a handshake becomes a momentous, virtually cataclysmic, experience for him.

Merrick tells Mrs Kendal that he’s never seen a woman naked. Clarkson makes the unbuttoning and unpinning an act of consummate elegance and generosity. In the original London production (which moved from Hampstead to the National in 1980), this was a rather awkward, embarrassing moment. Here, thanks to Clarkson, it’s sensual and profound, and it makes Merrick’s day.

The development of this symbiotic relationship between the physical extremes of human nature gives a depth charge to the production that leaves poor Treves (a sympathetic Alessandro Nivola) stuttering and, in the end, despairing, on the side lines. He knows there’s only one outcome.

Ellis’s production, designed by Timothy R Mackabee, with costumes by Clint Ramos and lighting by Philip S Rosenberg, is clinically staged on a raised platform with a canopy of laboratory lights and just enough Victorian atmosphere to sketch in the colliding worlds of freak show entertainment, medical research, psychological awakening, royal and aristocratic society, and Merrick’s innate chivalry. It’s a triumph of tone and tenderness.

The Elephant Man runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 8 August 2015. Click here for more information and to book tickets.