Ellis and co.’s wonderful revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play began life in 2012, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, as a part of the town’s prestigious Theatre Festival. The production then went on to enjoy a highly-revered fourteen week run at Broadway’s Booth Theatre in late 2014. Now, the play has returned to its spiritual home, having been met with massive praise - and rightly so.
The Elephant Man at the Theatre Royal Haymarket follows the tragic life of the severely deformed Leicesterian Joseph Merrick (referred to as ‘John Merrick’ in Pomerance’s script) as he leaves life as a freak-show exhibit and rises through the ranks of Victorian London society.
The play begins with a projected image of the real Merrick, flanked by a Coopermarionette in period underwear and Dr. Frederick Treves (an exceptionally remarkable Alessandro Nivola). Like David Bowie and Mark Hamill before him, Cooper’s portrayal is not aided by make-up or prosthetics - instead, Merrick’s condition is recreated solely in Cooper’s physicality. As Dr. Treves take us through the prognoses of each of Merrick’s malformations, Cooper’s corresponding body parts transform accordingly. It absolutely must be stated that Cooper is magnificent as the fully-metamorphosed Merrick. I must admit that I had been less than convinced by the photographs I’d seen, but the real thing was enthralling. As Merrick’s freak-show exhibitor Tom Norman may well have cried, you have to see it to believe it.
Merrick’s fortunes appear to alter course as he is saved from a violent mob at Liverpool Street Station and taken under the wing of the admirable Treves at the Royal London Hospital. Here he also befriends hospital administrator Carr-Gomm (a charming performance from Henry Stram) and West End actress Mrs. Kendal, and through the latter Merrick soon acquaints himself with the country’s elite.
In such company, the poetic intellectual reveals itself from within Merrick’s unsightly exterior. It remains unclear though, whether it’s ultimately this quality that makes him such an appealing personality to the English gentry, or that they can, apparently unselfishly, use this spectacle as a mirror to reflect on their own ‘misfortunes’.
Bradley Cooper has spoken about the significance of the role to himself, acknowledging that it was David Lynch’s 1980 film that inspired him to become an actor, and like Pomerance’s characters, he’d developed an acute connection with Merrick. Ellis has also noted Cooper’s deep respect for the man, even claiming that Merrick’s presence can be felt on some level as Cooper performs. The company has certainly done him credit - and if that near-tangible energy that buzzes about the theatre as the cast perform is indeed Mr. Merrick, then I’ve no doubt he’d feel honoured.
Never before have I seen an all-American cast affect English accents with such consistent precision - I was astounded to learn that the production made the journey across the Atlantic with the Broadway cast in its entirety, having had my expectations lessened by the ‘British’ accents in Broadway’s Spamalot and Kinky Boots.
Of all the production’s merits though, none are as impressive as the cast - what a phenomenally performed production. Patricia Clarkson is delightful as the amiable thespian Mrs. Kendal - particularly moving is a heartbreaking scene in which she undresses for Merrick, so that he may see the naked female form for the first time. There’s an unusual yet warming chemistry between American Hustle co-stars Cooper and Nivola as they depict a profound relationship quietly strained by Treves’ dedication to Merrick’s care and happiness.
The Elephant Man runs until August 8. Scott Ellis’ production is a triumph - step right up!
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