THE REAL AND IMAGINED HISTORY OF THE ELEPHANT MAN - MELBOURNE
THE REAL AND IMAGINED HISTORY OF THE ELEPHANT MAN, Malthouse Theatre, 4-27 August 2017. Photography various: above - Daniel Monks; below - the company
The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man is more than a story about Joseph Merrick – the man deemed too grotesque even for a Victorian era freak show. There are five actors in the piece: four women who play both men and women. They are a woman of colour, a size, and an age. They meld in such a way that you don’t know who is playing who – and finally think: does it matter? It tests the notion of the “norm”. Just as we in Australia are being tested and ask to “vote” on how people live their lives, it is anathema. This show is very timely.
The writing is poetic (Tom Wright), it has a gentle rhythm to it that softens the harshness of Victorian London, where smog and industrial steam choke the city and misfits and the disfigured lurk in the dark.
Paula Arundell as the spruiker of the freak show, sets the scene and invites us to look at the spectacle that is Joseph Merrick (Daniel Monks) and judge for ourselves. A snivelling mass cowers in a corner of a murky, mist-filled stage with a blanket drawn across his shoulders.
Wright gives us the human touch with Merrick as a young boy waiting for his father (Sophie Ross) to come home from the pub. His mother (Julie Forsythe) is full of love for the young boy who is obviously – and incrementally – different but through “God’s love” is still alive. But, a mother’s love is not enough when you’re so different in the eyes of society and when she dies he is left to roam the underworld, his physical disfigurement spreading daily. He soon becomes a thing to be shunned and ridiculed.
Living on the streets, working in freak shows, he is a nothing: invisible or reviled. In this unforgiving time, he is “saved” by the good doctor Frederick Treves (Ross), who places him in a hospital. Merrick is warm, he is fed but he is still a freak and subject to whispers and derision. Nevertheless, it does become a life, of sorts. He dresses as if he is “normal” and he has a keen intellect. A scene with a dying girl (Emma J Hawkins) who talks to Merrick as a man, not a thing, is telling, as the young girl is blind.
Merrick is in a continual struggle with his identity. Frustrated by his confinement, he finds his way out of the hospital into the snowy night, walking the streets of London – freedom – understanding and comforted by the notion that he is a “species of one”.
Daniel Monks’ performance, from a young boy full of wonder and love, to the maligned adult man is beautifully nuanced. The ensemble performances of Sophie Ross, Julie Forsythe, Paula Arundell and Emma J Hawkins are all wonderfully realised as the characters that cross Merrick’s path.
Director Matthew Lutton has given us a thought-provoking production that’s both gentle and harsh. The set and costume design by Marg Howell leaves no doubt that we are in grimy Victorian London. The discordant sound design (Jethro Woodward) coupled with Paul Jackson’s jarring lighting both have an intensity that is genuinely moving.
People are different, and it is how we act or react that needs to be questioned. This production is important and a must see.