I’ve mentioned on this blog before that when I was very young I saw “The Elephant Man” movie starring John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud. Multiple times. I was, naturally, very anxious to see how they would do this at the theatre. It obviously started as a theatre production, but this was my first time seeing it live.
“The Elephant Man” was Joseph Merrick. If you don’t know the story, as far as his appearance, a picture will say more than a thousand words (below). When I saw the movie I recall having undying sympathy for this disfigured – yet terribly intelligent – man, as he struggled through his life, taunted by crowds of cruel individuals, probably afraid of what they didn’t know. He was picked up by a showman that made him some money from shows, but they got away from each other and eventually Merrick met Dr Treves that decided to take care of him. After years of living at the hospital, he died in his sleep when he was only 32.
My main question was:
How would they deal with Joseph Merrick’s appearance?
I almost expected some hideously unreal plaster-work, but luckily – if I may say so – Marc Pickering (playing Merrick) had enough acting talent to not need any props added onto his body to play convincing as the disfigured Elephant Man. Frederick Treves (Ayden Callaghan) showed a slide-show of pictures of the real Merrick, explaining his physique, as Merrick stood – naked – with his back against us, adding one deformed limb after another as his doctor explained. In the end, you’d have to have a terribly blank imagination if you couldn’t see every deformity on this man’s body.
My forehead was sore after 90 minutes of frowning in a mix of “those f***ers!” and “nobody should have to feel like he did”. Even though Treves ultimately did a good thing getting Merrick off the street, he also – to some extent – abused his power. He wanted to maintain full control and giving Merrick as little space to do what he wanted to do/say/think as possible. “For his own good” was the excuse. Like wanting to see a woman naked just once in his life. When he gets to, he gets told off like a naughty school boy – around the age of 30.
I have to say that I thought it was an outstanding, understated production. The small stage with maybe 50 seats surrounding it just added to the excellence. Marc Pickering was just… I hardly have words. He was perfect. Baring it all – physically and emotionally – for a role that was done with such elegance, intelligence, emotion and heart has to be incredibly difficult. Maybe even more so in such an intimate setting.
Jennifer Taylor (Mrs Kendal) has a real compassion for her new friend, to the extent that she’s willing to grant him his highest wish. She, herself, suggests that she comes to see him often so that he can grow acquainted with communication with women. Something he had previously never done. She shows real passion, and love, for Merrick’s bleeding and compassionate heart. In the film Mrs Kendal says: “You’re not an Elephant Man at all – you’re Romeo!”
Ayden Callaghan was perfectly cast as the doctor that struggles with his own guilt, sees himself in his patient more than he cares to admit, and has an incredible amount of self-loathing in the middle of it all. When Merrick points out things to him – that he already knows but wishes he didn’t – he gets angry and frustrated. Ayden does this role incredibly well, acting out his suppressed anger and hatred as intended.
The only scene I missed from in the movie was where Merrick finally gets his recognition at the theatre; His actress friend Mrs Kendal dedicates her entire performance to him, asks him to stand up and gets a standing ovation from everyone at the theatre as he mutters: “I feel as if I’ve travelled my whole life just to stand here.”
“The Elephant Man” opened 4th April for previews, and will run through to 5th May at Trafalgar Studios. It first received critical acclamations for the 1979 Broadway production, winning all major drama awards including three Tonys, three Obies, the Drama Desk Award and the New York Drama Critics award.
If you’re up for a strong experience, don’t miss it.