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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Elephant Man: A Review

February 9, 2015
After her Q&A with artistic director Steve Green, Daisy Graham saw his award-winning play, Elephant Man, and became the latest member of the Fourth Monkey fan-base. I have to confess, I have shied away from the Elephant Man all my life. Watching the first half of the 1980 David Lynch film was enough to put…

After her Q&A with artistic director Steve Green, Daisy Graham saw his award-winning play, Elephant Man, and became the latest member of the Fourth Monkey fan-base.

I have to confess, I have shied away from the Elephant Man all my life. Watching the first half of the 1980 David Lynch film was enough to put me off the multitude of books and documentaries depicting the life of this unfortunate man – it’s far too sad and uncomfortable. What could I possibly gain from learning the painful details of how Joseph Merrick was abused and exploited? It’s an exercise in futility that only succeeds in depressing everyone – can we all just move on? I then watched Fourth Monkey Ensemble’s visceral production, Elephant Man, and my ignorance was exposed.

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Firstly, credit has to be given to writer/director Steve Green, for maintaining the critical balance of humour and pathos. My concerns that the audience would be slapped in the face with suffering upon suffering for 90 minutes, were unnecessary. The suffering of Merrick does, however, permeate the entire production, as is completely right; he never experienced a reprieve from his condition so why should we be anything less than uncomfortable while watching him? The genius of Green’s direction combined with Daniel Chrisostomou’s masterful performance, results in a rasping, groaning, shell of a man – with ‘beautiful brown eyes’ – who gradually becomes a valued and accepted member of Victorian high society. Ostensibly, this is a ‘rags to riches’ tale. Yet Green urges us to delve deeper into the motives and hypocrisies of Joseph’s generous new friends.

Rescued from the circus freak show run by the sadistic George Norman (Adam Trussell), Joseph Merrick becomes a resident at the London Hospital under the supervision of surgeon, Frederick Treves (Scott McGarrick). Soon he is initiated in to the civilised world of the Victorian middle class, and his fear morphs into delighted gratitude at the kindness he receives. The well-spoken Treves seems like a blessing compared to the vulgar Norman, yet we are made to question whether he has purely honest intentions. In one scene we see Treves prodding and poking Merrick, as he dictates his observations to the nurse, apparently oblivious to his patient’s yelps of pain. In another, Treves presents him to fellow doctors, with the flair and showmanship reminiscent of Mr Norman – is this so far removed from Merrick’s caged life at the circus? It seems the only real difference is the class of spectator.

The five cast members perform with a confidence and slickness that comes from complete faith in the script, direction and each other. Possibly one of the greatest benefits of working in an ensemble is the interdependency it fosters between actors; no time is wasted on boosting egos, and that came across in this production. The play, too, seemed purpose-made for the Jack Studio in Brockley, an intimate 50-seat theatre where the audience can’t escape the immersive, claustrophobic world of Joseph Merrick. In a larger space, it would not have worked nearly as well. I would suggest booking your ticket pronto before the production leaves Brockley on February 21st.

Elephant Man is a dynamic yet immensely poignant play that, although hard to watch at times, should be seen. This isn’t a freak show of the kind Merrick was forced to participate in (although occasionally we are made to feel implicit in his exploitation) but a gripping portrait of a gentle man at the mercy of a greedy, sensationalist world. There is a murky line between right and wrong, good and bad, which Green traverses with style. I saw the play two days ago and I’m still not quite sure how to feel. Go see it and make your own minds up.

Elephant Man is showing at the Jack Studio, Brockley until February 21st. Tickets are £11 for students.

Images: Fourth Monkey