Theatre Review: The Elephant Man

oseph Merrick was one of the most unique and intriguing characters of British medical history. He was so beset with deformity that he was known as The Elephant Man.

Presented by The Adelaide Repertory Theatre
Reviewed 16 April 2016

Joseph Merrick was perhaps one of the most unique and intriguing characters of British history, specifically its medical history. He was a man so beset with physical illness and deformity that he became known as The Elephant Man.

The legend of Joseph Merrick lives on in his incredible medical records (including his preserved skeleton), the famous film by David Lynch and in the Broadway play by Bernard Pomerance, which has now been adapted by The Adelaide Repertory Theatre. Under the talented direction of Megan Dansie and through the eerily realistic acting of Robert Bell, The Elephant Man has been brought back to life.

The play’s two lead actors Bell and Steve Marvanek, who plays the respected yet arrogant Dr. Treves, both put on incredible performances, but it is Bell who, naturally, steals the show. His portrayal of the physically debilitated Merrick is horrifying, yet respectful. Without the use of any make-up or extensive costuming (a move suggested by the play’s original script), he is able to capture Merrick’s physical struggle through a set of almost painful-looking contortions of his own body. One of the most impressive aspects of this feat is that he is able to keep up his character even throughout scene changes. It did seem that this act took a toll on Bell during last-nights performance, as by the last quarter of the play or so his “deformities” became noticeably less pronounced.

The purpose of the lack of prosthetics (to let the audience imagine Merrick’s body and highlight the illusory power of theatre) is somewhat defeated, though, by choosing to costume the “Pinheads” (Sharon Malujlo, Nicole Rutty, Georgia Stockham). Their scene seemed to me a more needless and less-respectful portrayal of physical differences, though this is more of a fault of the original script than the performing cast and crew.

l to r: Steve Marvanek, Robert Bell, Georgia Stockham

l to r: Steve Marvanek, Robert Bell, Georgia Stockham

Steve Marvanek manages to capture the up-tight personality of Dr. Treves well, but can go a bit overboard at times and end up up-tight and wooden himself. He does have an undeniable stage presence, though, and that is vital for such an important lead. Georgia Stockham as benevolent Mrs. Kendall is fabulous and commanding in her role, with a definite air of charm and grace that makes her character seem real.

In fact, most of the characters in this performance seem real, as if plucked straight from the streets of Whitechapel. The accents are great and pretty much spot-on (though I’m sure you’d spot the hidden Australiana in there if you’d just come from Whitechapel yourself!) lending to a real 19th century, grimey London feeling. I particularly liked Jon Scholten’s portrayal of Ross, Merrick’s original “manager”, for just this reason.

The Elephant Man is a touching play that puts the spotlight on the issues around physical deformity and public acceptance. It helps us to realise that we haven’t come all that far from the days of Freak Shows and that even under horrifying exteriors, beauty can exist.

Reviewed by James Rudd
Twitter: @james_wrr

Photo credit: Norm Caddick

Venue: Arts Theatre, 53 Angas St, Adelaide
Season: 14-23 April
Duration: 2 hours including 15 minute interval
Tickets: $17.00 – $22.00
Bookings: From the Adelaide Repertory Theatre Website


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