‘Tis true, my form is something odd, but blaming me is blaming God’ – ‘The Elephant Man’ at The New Wolsey Theatre

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The attractions of acting for a young adult can include the trying on for size of different identities at a period of life when one is not always that comfortable nor secure within ones own. Escaping the limitations and challenges of a rapidly changing physicality has allure, yet for Dominic Crane, the young actor playing the role of John Merrick, known as the Elephant man, this must have presented him with a greater challenge than previous roles have done.

Born in 1862, Joseph Merrick displayed disfiguring tumours before the age of 2 and his condition rapidly deteriorated, resulting in the total loss of use of one arm; protrusions and soft-tissue swellings covered most of his body. In the tradition established by actors such as Mark Hamill and David Bowie who performed in this role on Broadway, Crane used images of Merrick and his preserved skeleton in order to depict the physical and psychological limitations imposed upon John Merrick. For an actor of such youth, his depictions was at times astonishing in its consummate skill and maturity, only occasionally losing focus. Crane manipulated his torso and skeleton into torturous swaying folds and Serpentine curves not once allowing this to become caricature. Close observation of what is known of Merrick’s speech (no doubt informed by medical input as to how the disease process would affect diction and breathing) in conjunction with a decision to deviate from the ‘sing song musical hall’ qualities of the original production led us to hear Crane’s voice as product of a tangled body- words forced past squeezed lungs and out through a mouth pushed to one side by facial growths. We had no need of make up or prosthetics. 

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Dominic Crane as John Merrick

The sound of Merrick’s breathing which mirrored the intensity of his emotions was employed as a narrative and dramatic device. Breath sounds gained meaning for Merrick’s new protector, Dr Treves , becoming the soundtrack to his intrapersonal dialogue and conscience- as Dr Treves nightmare takes hold in his mind, Merricks breathing acts as both chorus and conscience, gaining intensity and urgency. Directors Rob Salmon and Rich Rusk draw from physical theatre in their use of actors to mimic the ebb and flow of sleep waves washing over the characters (and us) and to indicate changes of mood and scene.

Despite a linear story structure, this production introduced the idea of a literal misrepresentation of Merrick’s story by the Good Doctor Frederick Treves, turning into a metaphorical nightmare- his own image of himself as charitable Victorian gentleman is challenged both by events and his own moral conscience – the nightmare intensifies. What starts off as actual swirling crepuscular haze (through the use of smoke) becomes a metaphorical one. Treves is no longer so certain of his philanthropic motives nor assured that his actions will continue to be seen in an altruistic light.  We see the concept of the carnival freak show moving from a highly popular and profitable entertainment to a criticised and inappropriate genre of entertainment. Treves realises that he is not that much removed from Ross in perpetuating Merrick’s status as an attraction that elicits disgust, pity, sympathy and reassurance of ones superiority. In one touching scene between Merrick and Lorna Garside as the rustle of bronze taffeta that is Mrs Kendal, we see the concept of the ‘freak’ as asexual Other challenged when she shows him her breasts because he has not seen a female naked.  However this was only partially realised in a scene imbued with a quasi reliogosity, suggesting that Merrick is too pure to be subject to baser animal desires and only appreciates the Female form in a ‘higher’ aesthetic sense. We, it suggests, are more beastly in this respect. Mrs Kendal feels safe being admired by Merrick and then feels shame because of Treves appalled reaction which is an altogether more ‘human’ one infused with Victorian preoccupations with morality, decency and sexual repression.

The design of both set and costume established an ambiguity of motive, reality and effect from the start with the aforementioned haziness, the rushing, swirling mass of Victorian carnival by standers who then become the rushing swirling mass of visitors to the hospital to gaze upon Merrick and satisfy their need to be good and benevolent people. Ed Yetton should be congratulated on his superb lighting which perfectly evoked time and place as well as being a literal representation of Merrick’s poor eyesight. The costumes (by Faby Pim)  at times had a weird almost Tim Burton-esque feel to them. Jack Tricker as Ross, the owner of the travelling carnival freak show contained echoes of Beetlejuice with stark black and white colourways and his yawning, grin faced carney patter, barely pausing for breath, charming and repelling all at once. Images of carnivals and circus went through my mind as the French accented show girls and onlookers leaped forward then receded in that dream like Hall of Mirrors- did we see that or not- manner.  In contrast to this, we had the upright, uptight forms of Ollie Ward as Dr Treves and Carr Gomm as Stanley Rudkin who managed to make us forget that these men of maturity were indeed being played by young adults. They used space and mannerisms well to convey Victorian middle class success and self regard, even pomposity whilst not alienating the audience from understanding that in their own minds, they had the best of intentions according to the mores of the time in which they lived.

The Studios are a great asset. The space provides good sightlines and an intimacy that still allowed us to step back and observe too. However what did make us very annoyed was the fact that some people do not know how to behave in theatres. We were disturbed for the entire duration of the play by the constant rustling and rummaging of sweet wrappers and bags. The theatre is not the multiplex and this was not a screening of ‘Die Hard’ or some such. We get that the play was set in Victorian times but we could have done without the rat like rustlings from all corners of the auditorium. None of the children responsible were too young to understand not to do this and they were certainly old enough to desist after they were told to be quiet. Despite this and four more requests to make less noise, they continued to make a noise. Please educate your children on how to behave more respectfully; it is unfair to the actors and the audience.

The award winning visual theatre company Gecko  collaborated with the acclaimed New Wolsey Young Company to present Bernard Pomerance’s celebrated hit play.

http://www.wolseytheatre.co.uk/?gclid=CLag8dq6iL4CFWT4wgodoAwAzQ

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2 thoughts on “‘Tis true, my form is something odd, but blaming me is blaming God’ – ‘The Elephant Man’ at The New Wolsey Theatre

  1. Curious to me how these ‘curiosities’ still manage to capture our imaginations–the darkness and the illuminating results of ‘othering’ them, seeing not ourselves, but perhaps our worst selves (spectators, makers of spectacles) and even our best in our admiration for how these people carried on despite so much against them. Important story, I think.

    1. I agree- in order to treat somebody differently, you have to make them ‘other’. I do think this production was like a microcosm of Victorian societal attitudes from start to finish. Whether that was intended I do not know, but that is what I took away from it.

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