It might be set in the 1800s but the story of the Elephant Man still tells us a lot about today’s society. We may thankfully no longer gawp at what’s considered to be strange looking people in circuses but division and divide are issues we’ve still got a lot to do to resolve.
Well known for the 1980s David Lynch film starring John Hurt, the Elephant Man is the true tale of Joseph Merrick who was imprisoned in a Victorian freak show where visitors paid to stare at his severe face and body deformities. But his intellectual abilities were recognised by Dr. Federick Treves who took him to live in the London Hospital.
Although Treves was initially well-intentioned, the doctor’s desire to advance his medical career meant Merrick became a public attraction once again as the well to do of Victorian high society visited the hospital to meet this new celebrity. So Merrick remained an outsider and he was doomed to a tragic end.
This new production at Bristol Old Vic is the latest collaboration with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre school where students perform alongside professional actors.
Jamie Beddard, a sufferer of cerebral palsy which affects his speech and movement, is mesmerising as Merrick and there are many emotional and also funny scenes as he beautifully portrays the lead character’s desire to fit in.
The set itself is also a triumph. A large wooden box transforms from a freak show cage to the hospital and back again, while scenes are short and split into chapters, the titles of which are cleverly communicated through the use of text on props carried across the stage.
A lone cellist provides the often haunting music and the whole thing is subtitled on a large screen interspersed with images of the real Merrick which adds to the atmosphere. Some performance also have audio descriptions and are signed.
Our only criticism is that the second half doesn’t quite match the first but as Bristol Old Vic continues its Year of Change and tackles difficult and controversial subjects while widening the theatre’s reach to much broader audiences, the Elephant Man is a powerful, poignant and still relevant play 128 years after the real Joseph Merrick died.
All images by Mark Douet