Both the play and the film are based on the memoirs of Dr Frederick Treves, a surgeon in Victorian London, and his relationship with Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man who was exhibited as a human curiosity and later became a celebrity.
The exact cause of Merrick’s deformities is not known, but it is believed he may be suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome.
Treves first saw Merrick in 1884, when he was being mistreated by a showman in a penny gaff shop (a small venue used for unsophisticated theatrical entertainment) across the road from where he worked at London Hospital. Merrick was considered a public liability, and in 1886 Treves gave him refuge at the hospital, where he lived until his death in 1890.
Treves was an abdominal surgeon celebrated for performing the first appendectomy in 1888 and appointed royal surgeon to King Edward II in 1901. Through his connections, Merrick was introduced to society, showered with gifts and opportunities to mingle and discuss literature with upper-class ladies and gentlemen. But while he was safe, comfortable and enlightened, the exploitation continued on a different level, with self-interest veiled in altruism.
The play was written in 1977 by American playwright Bernard Pomerance, also known for writing High in Vietnam, Hot Damn and a version of A Man’s Man. It is based on The True Story of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford, a biography written from Treves’ memoirs; the movie was also based on the bio, although Pomerance later successfully sued the film company for drawing on much of the play’s content.
Pomerance’s play is a study of the relationship between two extraordinary men, the interplay between exploitation and abuse, altruism and egotism, and the enduring reminder of the importance of looking beyond physical beauty and disability in order to truly see a person and give them the dignity another human being deserves.
Robert Bell plays Joseph Merrick in the Adelaide Repertory Theatre’s production of The Elephant Man, which is directed by Megan Dansie (The Crucible for Burnside Players, Don’s Party for Adelaide Rep, and Pillowman and Richard III for the Theatre Guild). Bell made his debut in amateur theatre in 2011 in The Pillowman as the brain-damaged Michael, and has continued to take on challenging roles, including Don in Butterflies are Free with St Jude’s Players and recently Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar with South Coast Choral and Arts Society, which won him an acting award.
Pomerance’s Tony Award-winning play is famous for the fact that it does not use prosthetics, make-up tricks or other special effects to create the character of Merrick, instead relying on the actors to stir audience emotions. The skill with which Bell manages to contort his face and body to invoke a credible likeness to the image of Merrick is remarkable. He portrays the discomfort of his physical disability, the pain of rejection, and his basic human need for love and acceptance, for the full-two hour performance.
The set is simple, with minimal props, highlighting the competence of the actors to deliver a convincing and insightful commentary on Victorian life and the plight of those born without health and privilege.
Treves is played by Steve Marvanek (Don in Don’s Party for the Rep), who portrays his role with much charisma. Other cast members include Tony Busch as hospital administrator Carr Gom; Thorin Cupit as hospital attendant Snork; and Georgia Stockham, Sharon Malujlo and Nicole Rutty as the freakshow pinheads (people suffering from microcephaly and “mental retardation”) and in alternate roles as regular visitors Mrs Kendall, the Duchess and the Princess.
Bernard Pomerance’s play is just as important today as when it was first written. Adelaide Rep’s presentation of it is a reminder of our human frailties and highlights the value of local amateur theatre.
The Elephant Man is showing at the Arts Theatre until April 23.
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