Nottingham Playhouse pulls out all the dramatic stops with their dynamic and utterly mesmerising European premiere of The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man written by Tom Wright and directed by Stephen Bailey. The acting from the small company is superb and the revolutionary stage design by Simon Kenny is a total revelation. Don’t expect the film version on stage but do prepare to have your senses wowed by a thrilling theatrical world in which the East Midlands at the grim heights of Victorian industrial smoke and clamour clash with our contemporary world as we look deeply into the life of Joseph Merrick known as The Elephant Man from his own unique perspective.
This production does not attempt to present a realistic representation of Joseph Merrick’s historic appearance. Without the aid (or encumbrance) of body and head prosthetics, this production centres a disabled body within the language used to describe Merrick’s body. Zak Ford-Williams (Merrick) transforms his physicality throughout the play, incrementally adjusting the masking of his Cerebral Palsy, to demonstrate Joseph Merrick’s increasing age and shifting body. All the performers on stage are Deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent as are over 50% of the creative and support team and all performances are captioned. Captions are also being used for theatrical moments and to provide access to British Sign Language (BSL) for those who don’t use the language. This play is important audio visual enhanced theatre that raises the barre of creativity and of inclusivity.
The captioning and the moments using sign language make for a richer theatre experience as we have seen and heard with previous productions at Nottingham Playhouse and Derby Theatre when they have formerly collaborated with Graeae and Ramps On The Moon. And these moments are not without their humour as in the scene with Merrick and Nurse Willisen (an excellent performance by Nadia Nadarajah) ably demonstrate.
In her stage debut Annabelle Davis (Miss Fortnum and ensemble) proves what a thoroughly watchable and versatile performer she is; totally investing in each of her many characters. Her previous acting may have been through films but Davis really commands the stage in this production.
Zak Ford Williams as Joseph Merrick is a stunning physical actor and through his deft interpretation we don’t need to see Merrick’s grossly malformed body and head shape on stage; it is simply supplied through our collaborative actor/audience imaginations and Ford Williams’s sense of other being in his body language. His Merrick proves, as one would hope, to be a very sympathetic person but not without strong outbursts of frustration and anger at his situation but more to do with the way he is treated and maltreated.
The first act staging uses, amongst other impressive set devices, a mammoth packing case such as those that used to be utilised in the world of the travelling circus in former times. These would have housed large animals like lions and tigers and elephants for the people to pay and gawp at in a mix of fear and wonder. The packing case motif writ large also becomes an early Leicester home for the Merrick family and later Joseph Merrick’s freak show caged home where he becomes the frightening malformed creature to be stared at and poked by ignorant members of society and cruel management. There are scenes in this production that are genuinely appalling and make the blood run cold. The second act in the hospital is a brighter and healthier habitat but somehow still reverberates with stigmatisation and is no less a prison for the incarcerated Joseph, with little consideration for inclusivity. Understandably, he desires to live life as an ordinary citizen and not prodded and poked and talked at by the medical authorities and surgeons.
Tim Pritchett (Joseph’s father and ensemble), Killian Thomas Lefevre (Young man and ensemble), Daneka Etchells (Mrs Highfield and ensemble), Annabelle Davis (Miss Fortnum and ensemble), and Nadia Nadarajah (Nurse Willison and ensemble) all artistically feed and populate this darkly vibrant stage story of The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man with committed performances and the total result is a phenomenon. As is the staging and direction and the creative imagination that takes a well-known story and brings it to surprising life and gifts it with occasionally unexpected blasts of humour through Tom Wright’s stunning script and Stephen Bailey’s strong and quirky direction. Jai Morjaria’s dynamic lighting and Nicola T. Chang’s work as Composer and Sound Designer complete the picture.
As a play The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man, with its red curtain of promised entertainment; its fragments of dangerous and unfeeling industrial worlds suspended in space; its absurd sideshows and themes of courage and negligence; its brave poetic languages both spoken and signed should influence our reactions and sensitivities. Theatre, of course, is a series of words and pictures acted out and this play is highly visual and challenging, some might even say uncomfortable. It creates stark pictures where, as complicit partners, we are forced to look at ourselves and the way that we may judge people based on looks and stature and infirmities big or small. And learn. And improve. And be compassionate. Its a remarkable piece and worthy of selling out. And the name’s Joseph not John Merrick! And that’s a fact.