It’s a provocative idea: disability as superpower. Can we imagine Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, as some sort mutant hero whose disfigurement is a gift? This is what the latest Malthouse production seems to be suggesting in its variation on the true story of a man with severe deformities who became a minor celebrity in Victorian England. And what does this superpower consist of? Why, simply the power to fascinate and to bewilder.
‘I am the most extraordinary thing in this massive city,’ Merrick declares to the astonishment of the hospital nurses. They are trying to keep him out of sight, to hide him in the cellar. He refuses to go gently into the darkness.
In this version, directed by Matthew Lutton with a text by Tom Wright, the Elephant Man has the power to upset any desire for order, any ingrown yearning for labels and systems and diagnostic perspectives. Like a Dionysus abroad at a time of industrial revolution, he confronts his world with the real chaos of nature, the seething energies that modern civilisation tries vainly to efface.
We are more comfortable with the idea of great powers as their own form of setback or flaw or fatality. It is somehow reassuring to think that a gift or special talent can be a burden. This conception apparently dominated the most recent Broadway revival of Bernard Pomerance’s original 1977 stage version of The Elephant Man, where Bradley Cooper – according to legend the most attractive man alive – played the role of Merrick, as if sex appeal were a disfigurement or an affliction to be pitied.
Then there is the myth of great powers as a compensation for disability. Let’s call it the Tiresias trope. A man is blinded by the gods, but gets the gift of prophecy as a consolation prize. This theme predominated in the David Lynch version of The Elephant Man (1980), with John Hurt in the title role. Lynch insinuates that the extraordinary gentility of Merrick’s soul, its unusual delicacy, is compensation for his grotesque appearance.
But the Malthouse is not giving us Pomerance’s play or a stage version of Lynch’s famous movie. Tom Wright’s script uses the same source material, but the argument he constructs is much more ambitious. The familiar incidents are all here, but the depiction of institutional structures, in particular the hospital where Merrick lives out his days, is given a critical twist. Here, the doctors are just cruel examiners, policing the human body, intent on correcting aberrations or hiding them.
Daniel Monks was brought in earlier this year to replace Mark Leonard Winters in the role of Merrick. Monks is partially paralysed on his right side, the result of a childhood operation on a spinal cord tumour. Fair enough, but does he fascinate and dazzle? Is he, beyond this, a Dionysus? His Merrick is not without dignity or feeling, but he lacks the sort of outsized Nietzschean charisma which this particular version of Elephant Man seems to call for.
This is a script that celebrates nature in all its mutations, even where it bleeds and aches, even where it blooms only for a moment before suffocating on its own exuberance. Wright’s Elephant Man sees himself not as a failed human being in need of a cure, but as a creature who has escaped classification, who is in fact no longer human but rather a free variation in the rainbow of life.
Monks is not really on the same page as the writer. He seems unwilling to have someone else’s radical anti-humanism inscribed on his disability. It is one thing to accept superficial equivalences, complicating the voyeuristic impulses of the audience; but it is something else to acquiesce in a depiction of abnormality as a miracle and the human as something sloughed off.
I am not sure that Matthew Lutton is entirely on board, either. For the most part, this production lacks any dynamic which would invoke emancipation. With the bright exception of Emma J. Hawkins in one of four supporting roles, this production feels disconnected from the vitalism that animates Wright’s text. Hawkins has an artistic brio nourished by a circus and musical theatre background. I wonder if this show needed more of that sort of flair, something more rapid and self-consciously theatrical.
The rest of the cast have their moments. Paula Arundell has a fine opening monologue as the incarnation of the freak show tout, and Sophie Ross is appropriately sinister as a collector of oddities, turning up at fatal moments like Ibsen’s button moulder. But this feels like a production which is at odds with itself, hesitating before the extremism of its own doctrine.
Designer Marg Horwell’s London is a thing sculpted out of smoke and shadows, and her costumes have style and character. The action takes place in a bare room that is a torture chamber with victims subjected to random blasts of steam. When Merrick is moved to the hospital, his confinement is suggested by three monolithic light boxes which are wheeled around the stage. Jethro Woodward’s sound design is full of unsettling clunks and ghostly murmurs, a symphony of disquiet.
And yet, for all its difficulties, the play does end on a high note. The Elephant Man wanders into the snowy streets and there is a sudden elevation of mood. The effect is similar to the famous final paragraph of ‘The Dead’, the story from Dubliners in which James Joyce has snow falling throughout the universe and drawing all things together. Here, in the final moments of this play, it’s as if redemption and unification take place under the snow, merging the city and the surrounding landscape and the body of the outcast. This, at least, is an image the mind can surrender to.
The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man (Malthouse Theatre Company) is written by Tom Wright and directed by Matt Lutton. The season continues in the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until 27 August 2017. Performance attended: 9 August.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.