Review: The Elephant Man. Lace Market Theatre

Archive images of Joseph Carey Merrick. Born in Leicester 5th August 1862. Died in London 11th April 1890 aged only 27.

Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play, The Elephant Man was possibly one of the rare times that the 20th Century general public and curious theatre goers had got to properly hear about the extra-ordinary historical tale of Joseph Carey Merrick, a man cruelly managed and mis-treated as a Victorian circus freak. His short-lived destiny saw him go from his childhood at 50 Lee Street in Leicester in the heart of the Wharf Street area on to the Leicester Union Workhouse. These twenty-two years of tough life struggles led to his abject degradation in the freak shows in London and Belgium to his rescue by surgeon Frederick Treves leading to him socially mixing with high society and royalty of the time. It is said that the more ‘normal’ he became, the worse his heath deteriorated. He died at the age of twenty-seven.

It is about as moving a story as one could witness and this week The Elephant Man (as the deformed Merrick was known to the gawking and insensitive freak show public) graces The Lace Market Theatre stage 7-12 Feb. But first a little history, or should that be his-story?

Many readers will be aware of the award-winning 1980 black and white film of The Elephant Man directed by David Lynch, whose cast included John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Michael Elphick and Freddie Jones. John Hurt played Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film) and all his character’s body malformities were created using artificial prosthetics. The  film progresses and Merrick is taken in by surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), originally purely as a medical curiosity. Merrick’s true personality is revealed through the largess of Mr Treves and his care and stay at the London Hospital is funded by thousands of well wishers. Joseph Merrick is eventually shown to be an erudite, intelligent and sensitive man of great inner beauty, not a monster.

In the play Merrick says one of its most beautiful and profound lines about his self-worth “Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is full of dreams.”

Theatrical presentations both professional and amateur cannot reproduce such intricate prosthetic transformations on stage and instead have chosen to show reproduced photographic medical images of the original Joseph Merrick as were taken at the London Hospital alongside the partially clothed actor reproducing the contorted body shape. The rest is left to the skill of the actor to give us their Joseph Merrick through their twisted body and face. The actor chosen to play The Elephant Man is often deliberately cast as a good-looking young man. In the 1980 Broadway production the singer David Bowie gave his audiences a uniquely high-voiced Joseph Merrick whose speech patterns integrated some semi-strangulated throat clicks indicating muscular difficulty with the larynx.

Bowie said of his choice in acting in The Elephant Man at the 800 seater Booth Theatre on 45th Street, “I try to incorporate my daily feelings into the part. The original photographs define the role fairly concretely. It was a fact that his right arm was longer than his left… I am certainly intrigued by people who have put themselves on the line. In England the original role of Merrick was by the actor David Schofield in a definitive performance at the Hampstead Theatre to start and then the National. The theatrical rights won’t let me perform The Elephant Man in the UK. It’s complicated.”

Pomerance specifies in his play script that the actor playing Merrick should not use prosthetics nor attempt to mimic his distorted speech and that doing one of both of these would be ‘counter productive.’

David Field as John Merrick in the Lace Market Theatre production

Through a little theatrical research I have discovered that not all productions forgo some external impression of Merrick’s gross deformities. In fact, an acclaimed 2019 French production at Le Théâtre Public, from a play script by Anne Sylvain, had French actor Othmane Moumen as Joseph Merrick and showed Merrick in full prosthetics demonstrating ‘a fine panoply of distortion’. The deeply atmospheric staging was by Michel Kacenelenbogen. It is considered one of the world’s best productions of The Elephant Man.

Similarly, Fourth Monkey’s 2014 drama school production goes creatively part way towards adding layers of deformed body mass by obliquely suggesting the large growth deformities with shaped wire caging on the head and body of their Merrick actor, Daniel Christostomou. The student show was shown at the Brockley Jack Theatre in South London and the Edinburgh Fringe. Christostomou won much acclaim for his sensitive playing of the part. The much-admired production was nominated for an Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award.

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So, after all that historical preamble we look at the current Lace Market Theatre’s amateur production in its own right without feeling the urge to make unfair comparisons with the afore-mentioned film and shows. American writer Bernard Pomerance uses the name John Merrick to refer to his titular character as was the case in the film. Merrick’s birth name, Joseph, is only referred to at the end of the play.

“Think on it before you judge too lightly.” is the principle moral and thematic message that carries through in this fine play and most excellent production of The Elephant Man showing at The Lace Market Theatre this week; a production with such high qualities throughout including the impressive acting, the staging, the direction and the sound that it thoroughly deserves to be seen and will haunt you for days afterwards.

The three principal roles of John Merrick (David Field), Dr Frederick Treves (Johnathan Cleaver), Mrs Kendall (Kathryn Edwards), are excellently wrought. All are subtly thought through and it shows in the high level of acting onstage. Field’s Merrick is heart-breakingly good in his quest to define Merrick as a man after spending much of his life as an outcast. As well as his expected interpretation of the deformed man, Field is especially gripping in the Frederick Treve’s nightmare scene where the roles of medical analyst and the malformed being prodded and discussed are reversed.

Kathryn Edwards brings great stage clarity and luminescence as Madge Kendall and delivers her role with sympathy as the Victorian actress brought in to befriend John Merrick and allow him to enjoy the company of a cultured woman. Edwards handles the initial comic exchange borne out of muted shock and awkwardness between Field’s Merrick and she conveys well Kendall’s veneer of superficiality that melts into sympathy. Playing three roles Edwards is almost unrecognisable as one of the pair of microcephalic circus freaks – the pinheads and as the haughty Countess. Each of Merrick’s new friends after Mrs Kendall’s visit start to see aspects of themselves in him, as, I imagine, do this gripped audience tonight.

Dr Frederick Treves is no saint. Johnathan Cleaver’s interpretation of him makes that clear through his initial interaction with John Merrick with whom Treve’s only human to sub human consideration at the outset of the play is to show Merrick to an assembly of fellow surgeons at the Pathological Society in London as a crippled example of a very rare human skin and bone disorder. The Pathological Society lecture makes painful and uncomfortable viewing as we consider that the only benefit seems to be for the medical peers and not John Merrick. It is only further into their casual doctor/subject relationship that Treve’s begins to realise the deep humanity and kindness within John Merrick and also the subject’s intelligence and understanding of love despite his cruel upbringing. This is highlighted in a scene where one of the London Hospital staff is sacked for entering into Merrick’s room to gawp and laugh. John Merrick demonstrates verbal concern for the sacked individual because he does not want him to be placed in the workhouse and suffer as he did. Cleaver’s fine stage craft deftly brings all these nuances to the fore in a premier role of some complexity.

The remaining The Elephant Man cast are David Hawley (Carr Gomm/Conductor), Tom Rostron (Ross, Bishop Walsham How/Snork), Sarah Taylor (Pinhead/Nurse Sandwich/Princess Alexandra/Duchess), Richard Young (Pinhead manager/English Policeman/Porter/ Lord John). There is much to admire in these skilled actors in each of their multiple roles and the solid contribution they make to the play. They are extremely well rendered and perceptible. As for weak links – there are none.

It is very clear that a lot of creative thought and local talent has been utilised in this production and full credit must go to stage set designer Colin Treviling, lighting designer Allan Green, sound designer Jessica Rough and projection designer Matthew Allcock and all the invaluable people backstage and Front of House. The excellent costumes are courtesy of The Lace Market Theatre wardrobe department.

Director Nik Hedges has created a compelling and exciting stage library of Victorian atmospheres with his troupe of brave Lace Market Theatre actors. And, as the proverbial story book comes to life on the stage tonight we are surely given over in our minds to explore and question our own relationship to the norm, our own judgments and therefore our own “monstrosity”, which of course, goes beyond the physical aspect alone. Indeed, who are we to judge? Treated with hatred or at the very least, disdain, by some people, this so called ‘monster’ called Joseph Carey Merrick remained kind and humble in the face of ugliness.

This is a brilliant theatrical production of The Elephant Man. Don’t miss it!

The Elephant Man runs at The Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 12th Feb.

Photography credits: Kathryn Edwards and Philip Hogarth.

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