Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Real & Imagined History of the Elephant Man, Aug 9, 2017 ***1/2

Written by Tom Wright
Produced by Malthouse Theatre
At Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until Aug 27, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts on Friday Aug 10, 2017, and later in print. KH
Daniel Monks & Julia Forsyth - photo Pia Johnson
 During his short life in the late 19th century, Joseph Merrick suffered an unnamed and profoundly disfiguring condition that led to him suffering the indignity of being dubbed the Elephant Man in a London freak show.

This haunting production of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, written by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton, re-imagines Merrick’s life in a series of atmospheric snapshots.

Daniel Monks’ impressive depiction of Merrick is key in this production and his sympathetic, feisty and, at times, deeply moving portrayal is made more compelling because Monks, in addition to being a fine actor, has a physical disability that affects the right side of his body.

Wright’s poetic dialogue lends the play an other-worldliness that Lutton amplifies by evoking the smoggy, mysterious and dangerous streets of Leicester and London where Monks’ Merrick faces abuse, assault, pursuit, ridicule and fear – both his own and that of others.

With its sparse stage design (Marg Horwell), jarring soundscape (Jethro Woodward), and forbidding
lighting (Paul Jackson), the stage looks and sounds like an industrial tornado until Merrick reaches the safety of London Hospital where he spent his last days. 

The first half of the production is the stronger, with poignant vignettes of the child Merrick with his mother (Julie Forsyth), followed by alarming scenes of a world redolent with the stench of London streets that are populated by a parade of eccentrics, scruffy thugs and gentlefolk played by a versatile cast (Forsyth, Sophie Ross, Paula Arundell, Emma J Hawkins).

When the relative peace of the hospital replaces the horrors of the streets, the production loses some power, although the scene in which doctors catalogue Merrick’s deformities is disturbingly and the scenes between Monks’ Merrick and Forsyth’s cheeky nurse, Agnes, are witty and charming.

Despite the loss of momentum in the second half, Wright and Lutton’s evocative interpretation and Monks’ distinctive performance focus the play on Merrick’s desire to be treated as a man, not a monster, and highlight the melancholy half-life that he lives, lurking on the murky boundary between normal life and the world of the ‘other’.

By Kate Herbert 

Cast: Daniel Monks, Julie Forsyth, Sophie Ross, Paula Arundell, Emma J Hawkins

Matthew Lutton - director
Marg Horwell - stage design
Jethro Woodward – sound /composition
Paul Jackson - lighting

Daniel Monks -  photo Pia Johnson
Sophie Ross, Daniel Monks, Julia Forsyth, Paula Arundell & Emma j Hawkins -  photo Pia Johnson

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