A story in itself that is legendary, The Elephant Man is a true tale that has been told throughout time. With legendary films starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins and other performances through time made on the famous man from the 1800’s, the new resurrection in play form has already graced the stage on Broadway; both with Hollywood star Bradley Cooper, it has now made a boom in London.
For those unknown of the story, John Merrick was a true figure in 1800 society who suffered physical deformities from birth. Beginning in the work house and later in the legendary Victorian side shows, when cast out by his carnival ‘partner’, a compassionate and intrigued medical physician, Frederick Treves, takes him in to the London Hospital for analysis. Becoming friends, Treves helps him with funding to live a normal life and give him the opportunity to enter into society, till his eventual death.
Beginning this extraordinary tale, the design of the set was minimal. There was not much need to change the scenes, just simple additions such as a table and chairs, a bath tub and the use of curtains. Lights were simplistic, and while the costumes were true to the era, it could be easy to fall into the trap of making this more realistic to the performances of the time. However, music and sound were used to highlight the beginning and other elements, creating an eerie atmosphere and something relating to the time period but also something modern – this relating to the stage set up once again in avoiding making this a 1800’s production.
What we are all waiting to hear is of the famous Bradley Cooper as Merrick. There is always part of me that is cautious and at times unwilling to like it when large stars take the leading role. While bringing in bums on seat and revenue to the industry, and of course, at times I have already been proved wrong with stars such as Imelda Staunton in Gypsy, it is also a wonder whether this is blocking the way of potentially more talented rising stars. However, like Staunton, Cooper is more than a welcome addition to the role. When someone is able to act as profoundly and incredibly as he does as Merrick, his already abundant stardom is instantly forgiven. With no special effects, lighting, costume or prosthetics to highlight Merrick’s deformities’, Cooper contorts himself from a ‘normal’ human figure, to the character, while Treves speaks from his medical examination of each body part. While some parts of the body as missing such has his enlarged head and sagging skin, this is forgotten as his contortion is so incredible that you can almost imagine it. With his progression to talking and learning the ways of life, Cooper’s British accent is perfection and even more so interesting with the infliction on the ability to speak that Merrick had – his different intonations famous for their unusual expressions.
It cannot be forgotten that the other performers are just as fantastic without the opportunity to completely transform their figure and voice. Alessandro Nivola as Treves shows a stiffness yet much compassion as the character and his love and care for Merrick is emotionally expressive. Next to Cooper, his performance could be understated, but the two actors bounce off each other in a way that we can only imagine the character’s friendship in reality. Patricia Clarkson, another American actress and one of my favourites brought her comedy and, like Nivola, the emotional friendship that the character gains with Merrick. It’s hard to hear the take on the negative character’s with such compassion shown in these positive ones. Only criticism that can be made of the production is the lack of projection of all characters. Not only those who formed articulate pronunciations, Cooper also struggles with Merrick’s affected voice. The large structure of the Haymarket gives struggle to this and at times, words are lost. Perhaps microphone’s are needed, but a personal argument of mine is unless it is for a purposeful effect, theatre needs to return to its’ original form and training of performers to allow their voice to reach their audiences.
The Elephant Man brings everything to the stage with the slight feeling of modernity. Cooper’s performance not only astounds in the sense of showing true acting talent, but the impeccable ability that the human body and one with exceeding talent is capable of. Not only emotional and heart wrenching, this performance also brings realism and truth of such a difficult story.