16 August 2017

Review: The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man
Malthouse Thearte
9 August 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 27 August

Daniel Monks. The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man. Photo by Pia Johnson

My first experience of Joseph Merrick's story was in 1980 with David Lynch's film The Elephant Man, on the big screen. I may have been too young to deal emotionally with the initial fear – and eventual love – created by Lynch, but it carved the story of the young man who few could see as human into my memory. Unlike the well-known stories of Merrick that run the gauntlet of extreme emotion and see Merrick with pity, director Matt Lutton and writer Tom Wright take us into Merrick's imagined thoughts in The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man at Malthouse.

The production begins in 1880s England with the audience being welcomed behind a giant sideshow curtain to gawp for the cost of our ticket. Once we're complicit freak gawpers, Merrick’s story is told chronologically from his impoverished childhood to circus exhibit to the questioned sanctuary of a hospital. Based on what is known about his life, each scene gets closer to his imagined thoughts until we're with Merrick and looking back at ourselves.

Daniel Monks performance as Merrick finds a personal and intriguing space where he lets the audience know that he knows he’s being looked at because he is an actor with a physical disability. Performing without prosthetics, Merrick’s “cauliflower squeezing into pigskin” growths are imagined and there’s much more power in his wearing and final rejection of his “gentleman’s” suit. It’s cool to be different as long as you’re trying to be the same as everyone else.

Marg Horwell's costume design stresses the sameness of Merrick’s world and her set (with Paul Jackson’s consistently-remarkable lighting) initially feels Lynchian with a wide-screen frame that opens in black and white. But any comfortable and safe idea of a flat and distanced world is dismissed when the smoke and fog of industrialisation can’t be controlled and makes the audience part of the world.

Having all other characters performed by women (Paula Arundell, Julie Forsyth, Emma J Hawkins and Sophie Ross) parallels the question about how we tell and remember stories though different eyes. So much of Merrick’s story is known because it was told by Frederick Treves, the doctor who brought him to the hospital. Treves isn't part of this story; this time it’s Merrick’s story.

Yet for all it’s visual power and emotional punch, the production is dramatically inconsistent and at times feels like it’s caught trying to reflect on perceptions of disability rather than exploring the imagined life of the man whose skeleton is still on display and is mostly remembered because of his moniker.

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