The Elephant Man: a story of exploitation, still relevant today

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In a collaboration between Bristol Old Vic, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Diverse City, the theatre worked with Jamie Beddard who starred in this new production, directed by Lee Lyford, which played in Bristol from Tues 26 June – Sat 7 July. Review by Deborah Caulfield

Jamie Beddard sits in a wheelchair, to the right of the image, followed by a group of actors behind

Company and Jamie Beddard in The Elephant Man at Bristol Old Vic. Photo by Mark Douet

First previewed in New York in 1979, Bernard Pomerance’s Tony award-winning The Elephant Man tells a remarkable and sad story focussing on the life story of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), after he embarked on a career as a professional exhibit on the traveling freak show circuit.

Presented through a series of snapshots unfolding chronologically, the play’s twenty one scenes depict some of the key events in the last six years of Merrick’s life.

The episodes are brief and impressionistic, using minimal scenery and props. Photographs of Merrick are displayed on banners. The whole show is captioned, which, as someone with (even) moderate hearing loss, means being able to access all the dialogue.

A solo cellist plays hauntingly throughout.

The action starts with 31 year old Frederick Treves (Alex Wilson), a gifted and self-assured surgeon, arriving at The London Hospital in Whitechapel Road, to take up his post of lecturer in anatomy.

Thus we’re introduced to the man credited with saving Joseph Merrick from exploitation and degradation.

The next time we see Treves he’s bargaining with the fast-talking (a bit too fast at times) freak-show proprietor Ross (Micky Dartford). Treves would like to borrow this so-called “half-man half-elephant creature”, for verification purposes, in the interests of science. Five bob, no less. It’s a deal.

Scene 3, and Merrick (Jamie Beddard) is brought on. He’s stark naked, apart from a pair of regulation X-ray grade underpants. Two orderlies hold him by the wrists and ankles, to maintain his verticality. They pull out his arm, sideways. He looks like Jesus. It reminds me of me. I go cold.

In lecture mode, Treves delivers the findings of his examination, describing his specimen in dead-pan, bedpan style, leaving nothing to the imagination, sparing no one’s sensibilities.

A head the size of a fat man’s middle; lumps of stinking, squidgy veggie-like skin hanging from the back; a pink stump sticking out of the mouth. And so on.

The orderlies turn Merrick around to afford us a good view, and the better for Treves to demonstrate this “profound and unknown disorder”.

From the hospital, it’s back to the freak show with Merrick. For now.

The Elephant Man breaks new ground by casting disabled actor Jamie Beddard in the role of John Merrick. In an interview with Beddard about the Bristol Old Vic production, he described Pomerance’s play as resonating strongly with present times:

“There are loads of parallels between the experience of Joseph Merrick and the place of disabled people in society. Merrick shockingly gets cast out to the mob in the Elephant Man, and the current demonisation and disempowerment of disabled people bears much resemblance; albeit less viscerally.”

“The dehumanisation of disabled people allows those in power to do what they want and the story of Merrick is about fighting this dehumanisation. In these times, we need to be fighting more than ever to change the narrative we have been forced into.”

He has a point.

Freak shows are, I’m sure, firmly a thing of the past. But austerity has hit disabled people disproportionately hard. Since 2010 cuts in social care and other vital services have been nothing short of savage.

The Independent Living Fund was closed, Access to Work funding has been severely restricted, and a degrading benefits assessment process established. These and other retrogressive actions have led to an erosion of disabled people’s civil and human rights, and a fear of a return to institutionalisation and dependence on charity for survival.

Gerald Gyimah, Max Dinnen, Jamie Beddard, Charlie Suff, Gr·inne O’Mahony and Madeleine Schofield in The Elephant Man at Bristol Old Vic. Photo by Mark Douet

His freak show closed down by the Belgian police, Ross sends Merrick back to Liverpool Street Station in London, where he’s rescued by the police and station staff from a baying mob.

Treves is sent for: “Good Lord, Merrick? What has happened to you?”

Merrick: “Help me!”

Merrick spends the rest of his days in seclusion and relative safety at The London Hospital, thanks to donations from the public following an appeal in The Times.

Concerned that, despite being confined – for his own good – that Merrick desires above all to live as normal a life as possible, Treves organises visits from the rich and famous who are invited and instructed to be pleased to make Merrick’s acquaintance.

As entertainment The Elephant Man is a treat, especially the humour.

And Beddard is right, the play does indeed resonate, in terms of attitudes towards disabled people and their social status, not only in the script, but also the context of the writing itself: name-calling and othering, charity and patronage, objectification in the guise of medical advancement.

However, the play’s author, Bernard Pomerance, seemed less concerned with society’s role than the inner workings of Treves’s mind. Unsurprising, since he based the script in large part on Treves’s account written some thirty years after Merrick’s death.

As for what Merrick thought about what happened to him, who knows? As so often happens to disabled people, they/someone forgot to ask…

For more information on Diverse City go to http://www.diversecity.org.uk