While it will be hard to ignore the headlines when three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper’s The Elephant Man hits the London stage in May, this low-budget version by Fourth Monkey Ensemble has been quietly touring since 2012, getting nominated for an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award along the way.
The play tells the true story of Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man. Born in 1862, he was exhibited in Victorian freak shows and ended up in the care of Dr Treves at The London Hospital in Whitechapel, where he died at 27.
The tightly-written script by Steve Green, the ensemble’s director, explores themes of concealment and duplicity, as we learn that neither the gentleman Dr Treves (played with geeky exuberance by Scott McGarrick) nor Merrick’s ‘guardian’ at the freak show (a versatile Adam Trussell) are quite what they seem.
In a nod to the original play by Bernard Pomerance, Daniel Chrisostomou conveys Merrick’s deformity without the aid of prosthetics, instead his convincing physical gestures and inarticulate growls suggest a body at war with itself. The effect is bolstered by a wire cage that rests on his head and across one side of his body, suggesting both an exoskeleton and prison bars. His facial expressions are particularly emphatic and evoke sympathy and horror as he’s prodded and manipulated by the characters around him.
While the delivery from the cast members is often rather laboured (probably the director’s decision, as they all suffer from an overly emphatic tone with a spattering of long, unnecessary pauses), the production succeeds in absorbing the audience into Merrick’s world, where in spite of pretences, everyone is looking to profit from his condition. It can’t help but register a chord with a modern audience, who are used to seeing reality TV shows which tread a fine line between exposing the myths around marginalised groups in society and exploiting them.
The set is an inspired choice; a simple wooden box on wheels with white gauze curtains on all sides, it serves as Merrick’s cell at the freak show, his hospital bed and his transport in between, giving the distinct impression that wherever he goes, he’ll never truly be free.
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