‘Gabba Gabba We Accept You. We Accept You – One Of Us!’, so went the sideshow human oddities’ chant in Tod Browning’s 1932 film, ‘Freaks’ – a film which featured, and some would say exploited, a sad array of genetic aberrations who inhabited the world of the Travelling Show and were exhibited to hordes of insensitive voyeurs safe in their misguided belief that they were ‘normal’ and who were willing to pay their money in order to maintain this industry of misery and indignity.
Such is the world in which we find John Merrick, a man laboring through his life under the handicap of multiple physical deformities, in The Adelaide Repertory Theatre’s new production of Bernard Pomerance’s Play, The Elephant Man.
The story of John Merrick was largely forgotten before the play’s debut in 1979, and it became much more widely known after David Lynch released his biographical film about this tragic figure a year later. This film was to give the world its plaintive catch-cry: ‘I am not an animal…I am a human being!’, a line which, although never present in the theatrical versions of the story, is one that sums up the theme of this poignant tale.
Director Megan Dansie’s revival of the play has a number of great strengths, not least the riveting performance of Robert Bell in the lead role. Bell, who has been steadily building an impressive resume of critically acclaimed turns in local theatre since 2011, inhabits the Merrick role from the very first scene where we literally see him transform into ‘The Elephant Man’ body part by body part as London physician, Dr. Frederick Treves (played convincingly by Steve Marvanek), presents him in a lecture to his colleagues in the College of Surgeons. Obeying the convention of the original play, he must convince us of the presence of a staggeringly large list of physical deformities without the aid of costume, make-up or prosthetics, and it is a testimony to his acting skill that he carries this off so believably.
Georgia Stockham, in the role of Mrs Kendall, the actress who is initially employed for her ability to disguise her true feelings of revulsion and to spend time socializing with Merrick and who ultimately becomes his great friend, turns in a brave, warm and ultimately convincing performance.
The rest of the ensemble cast are generally strong throughout, with only an occasional mash-up of accents occasionally testing the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
Robert Webb’s set design is effectively sparse and simple, although the rear projections became an irritation at times and are generally superfluous to the action.
The purpose of any play should be to transport an audience into a state of reflection, and this production of The Elephant Man certainly does this. We leave the theatre thinking, to quote the play, ‘there but for the grace of God’, but more importantly we are made to recognize that everyone has their own set of afflictions and that we all need to ensure that we treat our fellows with unconditional compassion and respect.
Oh, and I did think of one more thing…
Reviewed by Ken Grady
Photos by Norm Caddick