Joseph Merrick was a man living in England in the late 19th Century. Like many people in this era, he began experiencing never-before-seen medical conditions around the time he started working in factories – as a teenager. In his case, the bones, muscle and skin on his head and face, down his back and legs and along his arm continued growing far beyond what they do in almost any other human. In time it affected his capacity to work and he lost his factory job. Around the same time, his mother died, and not long after, his father and new stepmother disowned him, making him homeless. Desperately seeking work, he finally agreed to be exhibited as part of a freak show, and thanks to his unusual appearance he was given the name The Elephant Man.
The story is old and familiar to many. The life of Joseph Merrick has almost become a myth or fable for the industrial age, retold in many iterations and to the tune of myriad agendas. Many people throughout the last century – scientists, surgeons, playwrights, filmmakers – have laid claim to his story, situated at the intersection of many of society’s modern anxieties. His life history has become laden with big questions: What does it mean to be human? How does modern technology affect us? What is the role for disabled people in a world dominated by the logic of industrial capitalism? What are the limits of empathy? Whether or not Joseph Merrick agreed to become synonymous with these questions is a different matter.
Tom Wright’s new theatrical treatment reveals that these themes of myth-making and spectacularisation pervaded his life as well. We see a Joseph Merrick who, living in a society deeply invested in marking his difference, stood to declare his essential humanity and to affirm the meaning and value of his embodied experience. The play is almost self-defeating in this way, simultaneously committing to the power of narrative to communicate the importance of Merrick’s unique experiences while trying to undermine the possibility of that narrative morphing into inspiration porn or even reproducing the spectacular-horror logic of a freak show.
Another risk was that in trying to provoke an able-bodied audience into reconsidering their relationship with disability (and being familiar with Matt Lutton’s directing style), the show might dramatically stage some of the more horrific aspects of Merrick’s life in a way that was incidentally hurtful or even alienating for disabled audiences. Some moments were shocking, and even as an able-bodied person I wondered if it was too much, but ultimately I think that the artists were more interested in facilitating difficult conversations than difficult experiences. There is a confronting scene where doctors present Merrick’s body at a conference, pointing long sticks at him and callously instructing him to raise his head as they loudly speculate about the source of his deformities, referring to him as if he were a cadaver or an animal. A careful touch of comedy keeps the scene from becoming sadistic to its audience, and this is a line that the production walks deftly throughout the duration.
Perhaps the most important thing about this production is the central, visible involvement of performers with lived experience of disability, in particular Emma J Hawkins and Daniel Monks as Merrick. As audiences, we can’t know the unique experiences of these performers in relation to the themes of the show, but their performances were nonetheless powerful and given with a conviction and complexity we could only expect from someone living with the type of body that for the longest time has been excluded from mainstream theatre spaces such as the Merlyn Theatre. Their presence as contemporary witnesses and retellers of the old story, relating the historical and present-day realities of people living with disability, is absolutely integral to the power of the show.
The ensemble performed cohesively across a wide range of characters and dramatic contexts, all in the richly textured world of period England. Paula Arundell’s use of voice was particularly impressive, and Julie Forsyth gave an affecting performance in several maternal roles. Monk inhabited the Elephant Man with articulate use of voice and the body, tracking the evolution of Merrick’s condition across his lifetime with physical work to match. The decision to eschew prosthetics in favour of the more honest, vulnerable, almost naked body puts a lot of pressure on Monk, but he makes it work.
I’ve become used to expecting abrasive hints of gothic horror, the stark and the surreal in Matt Lutton’s work, but The Elephant Man benefits from pulling these aesthetics back a bit. The form of the work is more conventional and text-driven out of necessity, foregrounding the attempt to bring us into an empathetic space. The fairly bare, proscenium-style set by Marg Howell similarly draws us away from spectacular, monumental set-pieces towards more ethereal phenomena, the drift of fog or snow. Howell’s costumes catch the eye in other moments, artfully communicating character. Paul Jackson’s lighting is reliably perfect, painting the stage with the isolated warmth of (really expensive LED lights that look like) conventional fixtures, like small fires in the darkness. Three big windowpane light boxes on wheels later take us into a starker chromatic world in the insulated simulacrum of the hospital. Music works in tight conjunction with effortless sound design, all by Jethro Woodward, amplifying and reverberating the voice at tactful moments, illustrating the mysterious mechanics of the city with a wistful chamber orchestra.
The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man, as it is titled in full, does ask us to extend our imagination into the past, into the lives and bodies of others. It’s not uplifting, per se; almost a bit bleak, but I think it depends on how you look at it. There is no way to erase the pain of the past, or the historical oppression of disabled people, but a powerful story can create a space of identification and help escape the loneliness of difference. It’s a bit of a strange context to be feeling that threat and hearing it spoken about: in a big crowd, looking at a big stage, waiting for a big story. I saw the show with a friend, and after the show, she was looking for me and stood on a chair to find me, and then crawled under the table and between people’s legs to get back to me as everyone around was drinking wine and nibbling on opening night finger food. Similarly a bit of a strange context, but it made me feel like I could be as different as I wanted and it would be okay because I had a friend. Strange but good.