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Joseph Merrick - The man underneath The Elephant Man
Most of us would be at least somewhat familiar with the story of Joseph Merrick, more commonly known as the Elephant Man. In this production at The Malthouse, we gain an insight into the life of Joseph Merrick through fragments – his mother reminiscing about her pregnancy, his appearances in sideshows and his time in hospital. This is a play about Joseph, the city of London and how neither can accommodate the other.
The Elephant Man opens with an invitation – we are the audience anxiously waiting outside the sideshow in a dreary, foggy London, being sold the story of what lies behind the curtain. Paula Arundell does a marvellous job of inviting the audience to witness "the Elephant Man" and builds anticipation before she disappears behind the curtain. From here the first third of the play explores Joseph's early life in Victorian London, the city becoming an oppressive force, another character alongside Joseph and the rest of the ensemble. This part of the production is obscured by a transparent curtain, highlighting the position of audience members as voyeurs, peeking behind the scenes. In the first third, the fragments feel slightly repetitive in terms of length and tone, but this mood is ruptured by Joseph's arrival in the hospital and the stage revealing itself in full. One of the most horrifying moments in the entire play is not Joseph's abuse by strangers in the street, or in the sideshows, but the extended scene in which his body is examined by a medical team who point out to the audience his many 'deformities'. Once again, the audience is being brought into the scene, held accountable for our gaze towards this man and his body. This is the beginning of Joseph's body being framed as a problem, something to be solved and fixed, asking many important questions about what it means to have a "good body" and how, in a society that is becoming ever more mechanised, we devalue bodies that do not conform to the standard.
As Joseph, Daniel Monks gives a heart-wrenching performance, painting a portrait of a man who is trapped – not just by his body, but by the city he lives in and the people who look after him. The ensemble cast surrounding him is strong and move fluidly between characters. One of the greatest strengths of The Elephant Man is its design, Marg Howell's set and Paul Jackson's lighting design working seamlessly together to transform the stage and bring Victorian-era London to life. Jethro Woodward's sound design is also excellent, highly refined and creating a subtle ambience that complemented the lighting and set beautifully.
The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man asks uncomfortable questions about the value we assign to certain bodies, questions which resonate as loudly today as they did in Joseph's time. By examining the life of Joseph Merrick, we are also interrogating modern concepts of health, of quality of life, of patronising inspiration and never-ending urbanisation.