The [true] story of the 19th century ‘Elephant Man’ is one of freak shows, workhouses and stark Victorian society. However, in the hands of Director Lee Lyford, Bernard Pomerance’s multi-award-winning play ‘The Elephant Man’ –now playing at Bristol Old Vic – takes the narrative a little further and raises important questions about our humanity today and its imperfections.
Living in the late 1800s, John Merrick led an unhappy, isolating and humiliating existence. Physically disfigured to the extreme and seen as repulsive by everyone, he ended up carrying out his existence as a ‘freak show’ under the guidance of a brutal exploiter who ended up robbing him of all earnings and leaving him alone and stranded in a foreign country.
In a chance turn of events, Merrick is taken in by Dr Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital, played by Alex Wilson. Treves is the first to show compassion for Merrick, and even though his initial compulsion is to view “The Elephant Man” as a medical curiosity, he ends up genuinely befriending him.
Eventually, Treves starts questioning the way in which we view and treat those around us that we perceive to be different. His transformation, thereupon realising the responsibility each of us bears when it comes to living alongside people who are different, results in a powerful performance echoing questions all too important for our world today.
Designed by Caitlin Abbott, the set is grim, suitably portraying Victorian society, interspersed with bold print messages that serve to mark chapters and provoke thoughts.
Jamie Beddard’s portrayal of Merick is a brilliant performance, managing to simultaneously invite compassion and deter pity by the audience. His involvement in the play would not have been possible without the collaboration between the Bristol Old Vic and its new associate company, Diverse City. Beddard serves as Diverse City’s co-artistic director and he jumped at the opportunity to own the role of Merrick as a disabled actor.
Throughout the play, the audience is taken on a journey of a complete change of fate for Merrick, whose status rises up high and he even ends up awaking the interests of royalties and other celebrities. All the while, Treves watches at the side-lines and questions the role of marginalisation.
How far has society evolved when it comes to the all-time conundrum of living around differences? Do we need to make those who are different just like us before accepting them as part of our own? What is scary about ‘The Other’?
Are any of these on Merrick’s mind when he abruptly decides to end his life? Is the newfound high status haunting his existence, or is his painful past catching up with him? The audience is left to ponder and reflect in search of an answer, all the while feeling shaken up by this turn of events.
The Elephant Man continues at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, July 7. For more information and to book tickets, visit: www.bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/the-elephant-man.
Photographs: Mark Douet