THE REAL AND IMAGINED HISTORY OF THE ELEPHANT MAN

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By Tom Wright
Nottingham Playhouse

Everyone knows the story of the Elephant Man, right? The tale of John Merrick, the man feared by people because of his severe deformity who was so brilliantly brought to life on film by the late John Hurt in an Oscar-nominated performance.

Think again. Australian Tom Wright has taken an alternative look at the well-known story and focuses on Merrick as a person, showing how he felt when people considered him a freak rather than a human being. His play The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man analyses whether even in the late 19th century Merrick’s treatment was justifiable.

Nottingham Playhouse is presenting the European première of the play. Stephen Bailey was given the chance to direct it after winning the 2022 Royal Theatrical Support Trust Sir Peter Hall director award.

Zak Ford-Williams (Joseph Merrick) and Killian Thomas Lefevre (Young Man). Top: Nadia Nadarajah (nurse Willison) and Zak Ford-Williams [images: Marc Brenner]

According to Bailey, the Elephant Man was actually called Joseph Merrick. Until now he has existed in the public imagination largely due to the account of surgeon Sir Frederick Treves who was responsible for Joseph’s spending his final years in a London hospital.

Bailey identifies as neurodivergent and the cast of six are deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent, as are half of the creative and support team.

Bailey skilfully brings out the best in everyone on stage, their enthusiasm, energy, talent and passion being evident throughout.

The production does not attempt to recreate Merrick’s appearance. Instead Zak Ford-Williams as Merrick “adjusts the mask of his cerebral palsy to demonstrate Joseph’s increasing age and shifting body”. A wise decision considering the fact that unrestricted growth on his arms and legs was the real reason why Merrick had to stop working in a cigar factory.

It is an astonishing performance from Ford-Williams whose physicality in the first half shows the hurt and distress he experiences when faced with a series of misfortunes. In the second half he shows a completely different side to Merrick’s character, particularly when he opens up to a nurse in the hospital about being kept out of public view. He changes from a troubled individual resigned to suffer ridicule into a justifiably  angry young man who berates everyone who treats him badly.

Nadia Nadarajah who is deaf sensitively portrays nurse Willison who is tender and understanding towards Joseph.

The rest of the cast comprises Annabelle Davis, Daneka Etchells, Killian Thomas Lefevre and Tim Pritchett, all of them giving excellent performances which led to a standing ovation on press night.

Annabelle Davis, Zak Ford-Williams, Killian Thomas Lefevre, Daneka Etchells, Nadia Nadarajah and Tim Pritchett

With distressing themes, dazzling lights and loud rock music, The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man is not for everyone. At times it is a disturbing watch as it catalogues how someone who looks different from what people regard as “normal” has to face unbearably savage treatment from people who do not know any better.

But it’s doubtful whether there has ever been a better example of theatre’s ability to be inclusive at the same time as demonstrating the unnerving quality of being able to shock.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website

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