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A CurtainUp London Review
The Elephant Man
Remarkably, Ellen Cairns, the designer, has not given Joe Duttine any special makeup or prosthetic devices to turn him into a man crippled by a disfiguring medical condition. Instead, Frederick Treves describes Mr Merrick's condition while his patient is stripped to the waist and director Ellie Jones suspends the disbelief. Joe Duttine as Merrick holds his head to one side, contorts his mouth and holds one shoulder higher and distorts his back. One arm is held with the fingers extended for the outsized, larger arm and hand and he limps awkwardly with the use of a stick. While we cannot imagine Merrick's real head which was 36 inches in circumference, this is an impressive performance conveying the handicap from which Merrick suffered.
The story opens with a Victorian freak show set in a circular cast iron bandstand. Sheets are stretched to convey a circus tent. Customers pay their admission fee and reappear from the tent shocked and disgusted. It is here that Treves meets Merrick for the first time.
We see the police shutting down this cruel exhibition (progress at last!) but Ross (Clive Hayward), the sleazy "show proprietor" takes Merrick off to the continent where the law is less progressive. There Merrick meets the three Pinhead freaks and Ross decamps and steals Merrick's savings. Somehow Merrick makes his way back to London to the London Hospital and Frederick Treves.
At the London Hospital he is cared for and the hospital guardians take an enlightened view. Merrick becomes something of a celebrity and is visited by the rich, aristocratic and even royalty. He dies aged 28 years when the weight of his head crushes his windpipe and he suffocates. It is only after his death, almost a century later that analysis of his skeleton leads to a more accurate diagnosis of his illness and is able to discount the theory that he had elephantiasis.
Antony Byrne puts in a fine performance as the Royal physician (Treves was physician to Queen Victoria's son the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII). I liked too Catherine Kanter as the actress friend of Treves, Mrs Kendal, who tries to answer Merrick's questions about women. The ensemble cast of just nine put in so much effort that it seems as if we have seen many more. But this is Joe Duttine's evening for recreating Merrick's gentle and disarming manner when fate has dealt him such terrible and painful disability. His performance is truly charming. In the second act, maybe in a dream that Treves is having, Merrick turns the tables on his physicians by describing Treves to an audience as if Treves were a medical specimen of interest. It is a wry and humbling moment in this absorbing study of how we treat otherness.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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