It was American playwright Bernard Pomerance who wrote The Elephant Man, which was originally staged in London in 1977. Two years later, its premiere New York production earned the Tony Award for Best Play. For over 40 years, Pomerance’s text has been the source of stage productions across the globe; a high profile revival in 2014, starring Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson, enjoyed sell out seasons in New York and on London’s West End and received a further four Tony nominations. Now, thanks to Exit Games Productions in association with Alan Brodie Representation and directed by Debbie Smith, The Elephant Man returns to the stage in Sydney for a limited run at Erskineville’s PACT Theatre.
The Elephant Man is inspired by the true story of Joseph Merrick, born in England in the mid-1800s with the rare Proteus Syndrome, which caused severe physically deformities. His difficult life lasted only 27 years. In Pomerance’s play, John (Jack Berry) is the character based on the real-life Merrick. Dr Frederick Treves (Nicholas Gledhill), a nascent surgeon in London, comes across John in a sideshow. Forced out of the British capital by police, the sideshow travels to Belgium but its manager, Ross (William Jordan), soon sends John back to London, abandoning him as a liability. Treves takes John to the Royal London Hospital, where he lives until his death, funded by public donations.
During his years at the hospital, John delights those around him with his bright mind and wit, his appreciation of the arts and his sheer kindness. Those who take the time to get to know John discover the many fine qualities he possesses and learn that he shares the same hopes and desires as anyone else. But is a so-called “normal” life something for which John can ever realistically hope? And, despite his seemingly good intentions, do Treves’ efforts with John truly represent what is in his best interests?
It’s those questions – alongside themes of intolerance, loneliness and mortality – that lie at the heart of Pomerance’s text. More than 100 years after the events that inspired the piece, The Elephant Man is a terrible indictment on the society of the time, but also forces us to question how evolved (or not) western society is today. The kinds of sideshows that exhibit so-called “freaks” may be a thing of the past, although we have generated our own peculiar voyeurism with reality shows. These often showcase the parts of society we feel most comfortable judging. Homogeneity is a concept that continues to find wide favour. Smith’s production succeeds in provoking reflection on our tastes.
Berry delivers a strong performance as the sharp, sensitive and creative John. His physicality is impressive, conveying with crystal clarity a man so heartbreakingly constrained by his body. It’s a committed performance. As the learned and ostensibly benevolent doctor working to create an environment of apparent normalcy for John, Gledhill is convincing. Jordan is appropriately repugnant as the unscrupulous and callous sideshow manager, and Marty O’Neill lends solid support as hospital administrator, Carr Gomm. Melanie Robinson brings warmth to her portrayal of actress Mrs Kendall, who is charmed by John’s taste for literature and develops a friendship with him.
Events unfold on a thrust stage and Smith’s simple circus set is a fitting backdrop, speaking effectually to the fact of John’s life on a stage continuing long after his departure from the sideshow. Susan Carveth’s costumes identify all characters effectively.
There are uncomfortable moments of viewing, probably none more so than the sideshow depicted early on in the piece. It’s extremely disturbing to see individuals, exploited for their physical and intellectual difference, put on stage for a paying audience. But, again, these moments serve as an important reminder of practises and attitudes that have their echo in the present.
Ultimately,The Elephant Man compels reflection on what being human – and humanity – actually means. If you haven’t seen it performed before, this production affords the chance to become acquainted with a powerful story.
THE ELEPHANT MAN – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: PACT Theatre (107 Railway Parade, Erskineville, NSW)
Remaining performance: Saturday 25 August, 2018 @ 7.30pm
Tickets: Adult: $35.00, Concession: $30.00 and Group (4 persons or more): $30.00pp
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