We all know the story of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. We all know of his terrible deformities, his unbearable agonies and of his eventual salvation due to his saviour, Dr Frederick Treves. I suppose the Elephant Man first rose to fame with the play by Bernard Pomerance at the National Theatre in 1980 and the incredible David Lynch film in the same year. The imagery of the piece is so iconic, the facts so well known, that it would be a brave man who took on the story anew.
Steve Green has done just that and while he has brought no new insights or information to the tale he has certainly come up with some outstanding and original new imagery. Rather than try to portray Merrick realistically with lots of make-up and prosthetics or present his abnormality solely by movement, the company has come up with a stunning and original concept.
In Green’s production Merrick, as sympathetically played by Daniel Chrisostomou, is naked and wears no make-up. His deformities are outlined with a wire frame which not only describes his grotesque shape but also acts as a cage in which he is trapped. The loose folds of repulsive skin which were also part of his disfigurement are represented by swathes of chain mail draped from the wire. The effect is brilliant and works perfectly.
This enterprising production was created by Fourth Monkey Ensemble, part of an establishment of which I had not heard until now. As I understand it, Fourth Monkey is essentially a drama school but is more production than classroom based. Their main course is the Two Year Rep and again, this sounds like a brilliant and original idea. Back in the old days of rep if you wanted to work in the theatre you either went to drama school or you worked in a provincial company as what was known as a Student Assistant Stage Manager. This was a formal system with a proper contract, a sort of apprenticeship in fact. Those actors and directors who came up through that scheme swear it was the best way. While perhaps they never learned to fence or dance a minuet there was no substitute for the practical experience they gained. Fourth Monkey seems to have struck a good balance between the two approaches.
Their Elephant Man is an ambitious undertaking which is, in part, successful. The concept for the visual presentation of Merrick is worthy of any company in the land but I think the production often suffers from a lack of attention to detail and the perennial problem that drama school shows always have – who plays the forty and fifty-year-olds? ★★★☆☆ Michael Hasted 6/11/14
Production photographs by StueyB