Not a stage version of the film: it was more the other way around in fact. It is very much a theatre piece which not only chronicles a true tale of a couple of extraordinary 19th century Englishmen and their effect on each other, but also throws up unmistakeably the fact that as a society we have not moved a long way in our acceptance of difference.
Joseph (John) Merrick was an exceptionally ugly man grappling with serious deformities from his childhood up. As a consequence he suffered crippling discrimination and derision until rescued at some level by an exceptionally talented, generous and scientifically curious surgeon who took care of Merrick in his hospital for the last four years of this unfortunate man’s life.
Robert Bell as Merrick and Steve Marvanek as his rescuer/ benefactor, Doctor (later Sir) Frederick Treves excel equally in this production. It is no mean feat to maintain a crumpled and angular pose for two hours, but Bell wears this with convincing understanding and consistency. Meanwhile the fact that the author calls for no prosthetics to accentuate the deformities, emphasises the humanity and internal normalcy of this outwardly distorted figure. It is the disdain and disrespect of the society that generates any distortion of his psyche or inner being. Marvanek reliably shows the charity tempered with conservatism and self interest of Treves, with his axiom that self help is the best help, and his aim to get Merrick as “normal as possible, while he benefits from the good repute and revenue generated by his harbouring of this deformed but appealing novelty.
Furthermore, the question arises, as to whether even Merrick himself is being encouraged to exploit his new friends as he offers them the same “service” as he offered to the lower classes when he was trucked around as an object of their scorn and amusement in the circus.
A supporting cast, several with multiple roles, fill out the story as it becomes a challenging metaphor for our own society’s degradation of the different, and not dealing with the challenge of seeing the essential humanity which is the core of every individual. Authentic period costumes (Jean Walker and Bev George), and an uncluttered set by Robert Webb, augmented with black and white projections on the back wall, with targeted lighting by Richard Parkhill allows the portrayal of a range of locations from a Brussels fairground to a railway station, to the London Hospital where Merrick lived his last four years, and died.
Altogether a fine production of an important story, with a great cast, which is a credit to all involved, and which should be seen by large audiences.
Adelaide Repertory Theatre presents
THE ELEPHANT MAN
by Bernard Pomerance
Director Megan Dansie
Venue: Arts Theatre Adelaide
Dates: 14 – 23 April 2016
Tickets: $22 – $17