Being ‘normal’

The Elephant Man, Hackney Empire, London

I was intrigued when I heard that in this production by Sheffield Theatre, the lead would be played without the prosthetics famously worn by John Hurt in the BAFTA award-winning classic 1980 film, directed by the inimitable David Lynch. Though Hurt’s portrayal is still perhaps considered the definitive version, I was all the more intrigued as I remember seeing stills from the original Tony award-winning Broadway production of the play by Bernard Pomerance; also in 1980, and featuring none other than the famously wooden David Bowie.

Having studied mime early on in his career under Lindsay Kemp, Bowie was widely praised for his performance, presumably drawing on his training to contort his body to mimic Joseph Carey (more commonly misnamed ‘John’) Merrick, the eponymous Elephant Man. Likewise, Joe Duttine is mesmerising here as Merrick as he twists his body and features, and inhabits his uncomfortable frame for the duration of the play. He first appears on the darkened stage in an eerie smoggy London crowd scene, draped in the cloak and famous hood. Soon after, we witness Duttine’s transformation into the Elephant Man.

Dr Treves describes the Elephant Man’s distorted anatomy for his colleagues at the London Hospital. As he points to each monstrous growth, or misshapen limb, Duttine adopts the twisted anatomy of the real Merrick projected onto the screens backstage. He throws his head back at an angle; his mouth stretched to one side, and turns and walks as instructed in the pained and awkward fashion dictated by his condition. It is a clever theatrical device, doing away with the need for make-up that could only fall short of Hurt’s; and at the same time exposing the artifice of the performance without making it any less believable. This initial fixing in the viewers mind of Merrick’s features, allows Duttine to carry with him a physical shorthand for what it must have been like to live in that tortuous body.

Merrick’s life was destined to be a tragic one. Born in Leicester in 1862, he left home in shame and spent periods in the local workhouse, before becoming an exhibit in a travelling freak show. It was during a spell drawing paying punters from the back of a shop on the Mile End road that he was visited by Treves, who was to eventually bring him to a more dignified public attention. It was soon after this meeting, and an ill-fated trip to Belgium, that Merrick’s luck changed, after he caused a stir on his return via Liverpool Street Station.

In a scene that is particulary reminiscent of the film, he clambers awkwardly from back stage in the same cloak and hood, shifting laboriously and leaning on a cane. Already robbed and beaten by his keeper-showman, and with his condition deteriorating due to a bronchial condition associated with his facial deformity, Merrick was apparently jostled by the appalled crowds. It is a scene where the ensemble acting really comes into its own. Three of the cast magically transform themselves from statuesque onlookers into a baying mob as Merrick and Treves enter and exit stage, squeezing through the imagined throngs.Put in the care of Treves at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Merrick soon became a celebrity within the upper echelons of London society, and a favourite of Princess Alexandria and later Queen Victoria herself. He was, to use that outdated expression, something of a wit. When he eventually cries: ‘I am not an animal! I am a human being! I … am … a man’, our sympathies are with him too because we understand his struggle all the more. Tired of being prodded, abused and stared at, by the crowds and by the doctors, he expresses as succinctly as he can his wanting to be a part of humanity – at least a very select part of it.

Indeed, this is perhaps where Duttine and director Ellie Jones slip up. We know that Merrick had great difficulty speaking, as we see him tutored by the tireless Treves. The problem with this production, and perhaps with the writing itself, is that Merrick is intelligible from the outset. His struggle to vocalise what lies within his monstrous exterior (so brilliantly captured by Hurt) is all important. It is indicative of the strenuous effort to transform himself from sideshow ‘freak’ to somebody deserving of the respect of those around him. That this is lost may be unavoidable given the need for us to know what he is saying in the opening scenes, but it also means that the progression in his speech is not apparent; and the efforts of Treves’ seem necessarily ‘staged’.

Merrick died at the age of just 27 on dislocating his neck while sleeping. Here and in the film version too, it is clear that it was a deliberate act. Not suicide as such, but rather an act of defiance – a determination to sleep as others do even if it was on his deathbed. He wanted to be normal, or should that be ‘normal’.

Merrick lived during an age of discovery quite unlike our own with medical science in its infancy but breaking new ground all the time. Treves is an ambitious doctor fasicinated by this terrible specimen, and at the same time drawn into an enduring relationship with Merrick as a man. His professional distance is not only tempered by their friendship, but fuelled by the spirit of the age, still firmly rooted in the Enlightenment and the notion of universal man. Merrick’s deformity is an aberrance to be eliminated by science, but the man himself is to be treated as an equal among men.

The Elephant Man works at a number of levels. For me – and this is less true of the claustrophobic filmic treatment – Jones’s direction, her lightness of touch, brings out the subtlety of the writing. Instead of the focus being on the deformed Merrick and his travails, it is the Elephant Man as metaphor for the society of which he was a part that truly resonates. It isn’t a simple celebration of the onward march of science and industry. It is also the story of the violence of the industrial revolution as it distorts and twists the bodies of men, women and children, through the poverty, disease and inhuman labour and living conditions in the slums of the East End.

All of which makes the restored Victorian music hall theatre that is the Hackney Empire the ideal setting for this evocative performance – with Liverpool Street station, and the Whitechapel of the London Hospital and Jack the Ripper (with whose victims Merrick shared a pathologist) just a short distance away. I left the theatre in this still poor part of London – so beloved of the bohemians of Shoreditch and Hoxton – wondering at our own morbid curiosity with the elephent men and women of today. The sideshow – abolished in Merrick’s lifetime has been revived – and made into mainstream entertainment. 

Any number of freaky ‘extraordinary people’ on Channel 5 – including the recent ‘half man, half tree’ who like Merrick is part of a traveling circus troupe of the facially disfigured; and the last episode of ‘body shock’ on the ‘Chinese Elephant Man’, Huang Chuancai, broadcast on Channel 4 recently – point to our own disturbing voyeurism. Perhaps the same goes for those of us drawn to the theatre to gawp at this theatrical recreation – we become the morbid voyeurs one-step removed. But at least by writing this review I can content myself that there is more to the Elephant Man than meets the eye. And that I suppose is the whole point.

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