It’s impossible to approach a new production of the story of Joseph Merrick, popularly know as the Elephant Man, without some awareness of the debate about representations of disability that has surfaced in recent years. It’s widely accepted that blackface has become unthinkable on the modern stage, but disability is something that is still regularly portrayed by able-bodied actors. Actor Mark Leonard Winter was slated to play Merrick in this production, but the producers evidently changed their minds, and replaced him with Daniel Monks. Monks has a hip dysplasia that affects the right side of his body, as did Merrick, and – even without the facial deformities that led to Merrick’s cruel moniker – brings an undeniable sense of lived experience to the role.
Eschewing some of the central iconography that has built up around Merrick, playwright Tom Wright makes a concerted effort to show things from his protagonist’s point of view. Even the fact that Merrick is the protagonist, and not – as in every previous version of the story – an adjunct to the able-bodied characters, can be seen as a progression of sorts. There’s also a move away from the cliché of the outsider as seer or holy person, existing merely to provide benediction to the rest of us. This Merrick can be enraged, impolitic and insular, and is all the more interesting because of it.
After a brilliant prologue that sets up the freak show atmospherics, the play opens in the fogs of London when Merrick is a young man, with three scenes that are primarily designed to demonstrate his worsening condition. The first involves his drunken father, the second his loving mum and the third his colleagues in the factory where he works. It’s a rather laboured way in to the story, and could be condensed or excised without much loss. It’s not until the black scrim that separates the audience from the action is pulled back, and Merrick is taken in by the London Hospital, that the play really picks up, and the dynamics of patient and prisoner start to coalesce.
Where previous tellings have centred on Merrick’s physician Frederick Treves, Wright concentrates on Merrick’s relationship with the nurses who attended to his body. This allows for a beautiful scene from Monks and Julie Forsyth, whose unbounded enthusiasm for Merrick and awe of his intelligence and refinement bring about a new awareness of his innate dignity. But then, all the performances are magnificent: Arundell’s superb opening monologue harnesses the prurience of the period; Sophie Ross has an extraordinary scene as a vainglorious actress who comes to visit Merrick for some method acting advice; and Emma J Hawkins is phenomenal as a fellow patient desperately masking her despair.
Monks delivers a towering performance as Merrick. Never merely abject, he evokes great sympathy within the audience without sacrificing depth or complexity; his evolution is largely an inner one, from “a body that is plastic, that fills whatever space is provided for it” to a soul that “stands like a tree or statue”. Monks manages this shift flawlessly, and skirts the script’s tendency to didacticism without difficulty.
Matthew Lutton’s direction is virtuosic, and certain moments create an undeniable theatrical thrill. The simple use of dry ice to convey both the steam of the trains and the swirling fog of London elevates the otherwise plodding opening scenes, and his command over the play’s quieter, devastating downbeats is consummate. Marg Horwell’s set is typically abstracted and expansive, but also capable of shocking beauty. Paul Jackson’s lighting is bold and clever. Jethro Woodward’s sound design turns away from any of the circus associations with Merrick’s tale, and is moodier and more multi-layered as a result.
Wright and Lutton have forced us to look at Joseph Merrick in a new way, and for that they should be congratulated. From a specimen to be examined and projected onto, he has become an agent of his own worth and meaning. If the play falls into some of the inherent traps of polemic – the scene where the hospital staff reveal their insensitivity by dressing up as characters from The Hunchback of Notre Dame feels like nothing more than a point well laboured – it still has a wealth of good ideas. It contributes to the debate around representation in meaningful ways, and underscores the Malthouse’s growing role, under Lutton’s tenure, as Melbourne’s most vital theatre-making factory.