The Elephant Man, currently nearing the end of its twelve-week run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, is an astounding play: well-staged, charmingly realised and arrestingly performed.
The story follows John Merrick’s life from freakshow attraction in the fairs of Europe, to scientific specimen, rescued victim and, finally, romantic hero. Suffering from a physically debilitating and worsening bone and skin condition, the deformed Merrick is an outcast from the Victorian society he was born into. Taken under the wing of Dr Treves (Alessandro Nivola), first as a medical curiosity, then patient and, ultimately, a friend, Merrick is able to discover a world beyond that of hiding in the shadows, isolated and alone. But with the newfound friendships and connections he makes with this ‘better’ world, questions of normality, and what it means to be truly a part of society at large, come hurtling to the fore.
The tragic life of John (though known as Joseph in real life) Merrick isn’t played here for pity or for sentiment; the story casts a wider look at the sadness and beauty of the ‘Elephant Man’ and his (too-brief) adult life. A Peter Pan figure in this regard, John Merrick observes the cruel world around him through the lens of his utterly romantic imagination. Despite the obvious malignity he faced in his youth, and the disgust apparent in the eyes of all those who see him, he remains courteous, kind-hearted, artistic, humble and unabashedly young – inexperienced and full of deep emotion. When he eventually meets the beautiful, confident and intelligent actress Mrs Kendal (Patricia Clarkson), Merrick’s life takes an even more unexpected turn, as he feels, for the first time, the touch of a woman holding his hand and the unflinching gaze of a women unafraid to look him in the eye.
Bradley Cooper here is unrecognisable; not because he is obscured physically by any make-up or prosthetics (none are used, Cooper spends the entire two-hour runtime hunched over, limping and protruding his jaw to the side to mimic the real Merrick’s physical disorders), but because he embodies this role in ways unseen in his more prominent Hollywood career. He conveys humour, heart, longing and sadness. The role calls for someone who can pull off graciousness and charm, as well as melancholy and mournfulness (particularly in the final scenes).
Nivola and Clarkson deliver equally praiseworthy performances, Clarkson in particular for her comedic talent and commandingly raw portrayal of a woman as romantically inclined as Merrick yet less naïve to the brutality of the world. There is a scene, worth notable mention, involving an utterly fearless Clarkson and an enraptured Cooper which sends chills down your spine, and in which I believe everyone in the audience collectively decided this play was worth an extensive standing ovation.
Beautiful and brilliant, this play is everything you want theatre to be, and so often fails to be. Would we treat someone with his condition any different today? Modern media still encourages us to cast our eyes widely about to find those more pitiful than us, less attractive, less well-to-do, less worthy of love. People are still marginalised today for things they cannot help. What a play such as this asks, is what can be done to treat people with more respect, more love and in the end, more humanity. We are not monsters, let us not treat others as such.