Left – Daniel Monks and Julia Forsyth. Cover – Daniel Monks. Photos – Pia Johnson
As humanity continues its blind progression, monsters will be spawned from our own wombs, intones the smirking sideshow tout in black.
With the coming to power of Donald Trump, sadly, this prophecy could not be truer. But it’s the harrowing world of Joseph Merrick that these sinister words lead us into, in an elegiac and compelling new production from Malthouse Theatre’s artistic director Matthew Lutton.
The 19th century figure of misfortune is conjured from the smokey dark of industrial Leicester as a young boy who’s drunken father pleads with him to be in the world but not of it – to tow the line and appear the same as everyone else. Our Elephant Man doesn't bear the growths and deformities of his historical predecessor, but Daniel Monks is physically disabled, lending so much more gravitas to the tale. He journeys from beneath the comfort of his mother’s wing, to the hostile streets, to the freak show, until even the tout rejects him because he “makes an art form out of loneliness”.
Merrick finds some form of sanctuary when a beneficiary places him in a London hospital, but has to deal with being poked and prodded by doctors like a dead rat on a vivisection table. In this sheltered existence he also realises he may be away from danger and prying eyes, but he’s also kept in some kind of limbo half life – “like a waiting room for death”. When a high society actress comes to visit Merrick, she breaks down when she confesses he may be a monster on the outside, but she is a monster on the inside of her perfect shell.
Melbourne playwright Tom Wright has lent his evocative, poetic touch to this adaptation which transports us into the 19th century’s stark depths with Marg Howell’s spooky, minimal stage design and Jethro Woodward’s industrial soundscape. The heaving, enigmatic city becomes a character unto itself – “it has the capacity to humanise, and dehumanise" says Lutton.
The casting is inspired – it is wonderful that Monks’ superb supporting cast is all female, playing both male and female roles, and to see the inclusion of short-statured performer Emma J Hawkins – another ever-present embodiment of difference. Monks himself captures Merrick with a complex kaleidoscope of colours – simultaneously he can be so vulnerable yet super humanly strong, so mournful yet glowing with childlike glee.
Merrick's beautiful final soliloquy in the roaring, lonely silence of the snow is heart-stopping – the world is constantly evolving, just like his mutating body, and he is a species until himself. He asks us what it is to be human in a world gone mad.
Malthouse Theatre presents
THE REAL AND IMAGINED HISTORY OF THE ELEPHANT MAN
by Tom Wright
Direction Matthew Lutton
Venue: Merlyn Theatre | The Coopers Malthouse, 113 Sturt St Southbank VIC
Dates: 4 – 27 August 2017
Tickets: $35 – $69