Writer: Bernard Pomerance
Music: Keith Tempest
Set Designer: Caitlin Abbott
Director: Lee Lyford
Reviewer: Julia Beasley
It’s a brave decision to take on such discomforting subject matter as the life of ‘elephant man’ John Merrick. But Bristol Old Vic, in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and diversity champions Diverse City, have triumphed with this theatrical gem that wrings the guts of why some people are treated as different.
The original John Merrick was imprisoned in a Victorian freak show because of his severe physical deformities that repulsed and intrigued the public. Rescued by enlightened surgeon Frederick Treves, who recognised his intellectual capabilities, he ascended into polite society and became something of a celebrity attraction.
In David Lynch’s 1980s film adaption starring John Hurt, the agenda was Merrick’s poignant struggle to be recognised as a human being. However, the accent was still on his weird appearance. In this latest seamless production directed by Lee Lyford, the spotlight is on how society treats ‘otherness’. We see how, in the contradictory age of showmanship and science, Merrick is always being treated as an exhibit for the entertainment of others, whether on a fairground stage or hospital ward.
A Brechtian wooden set conjures the cold morality of Victorian England, lightened by the gaudy iconography of circus shows and medical textbooks. Each scene is given a chapter title. Surtitles are presented as captions in a magazine of the time. A lone cello unites the chapters with a soulful refrain.
Merrick is played without prosthetics by Jamie Beddard, whose cerebral palsy affects his mobility and speech. It’s a tender and often humorous portrayal of a gentle, sweet and refined man who struggled with society’s lack of understanding.
Though the protagonist finally receives visits from aristocracy and gentry, he is doomed to be patronised and held at arm’s length because of his disability. He will never be allowed to enjoy love, sex or independence. His tragedy is that everybody wants a piece of him, from the freak show rogue to the chairman of London Hospital. If only society had been cleverer and kinder, the ‘elephant ‘ man’s life would have been very different.
Runs until 7 July 2018 | Image: Mark Douet